SHELBY, NC (WBTV) - An On Your Side investigation has uncovered a policy at the Cleveland County magistrate's office that prohibits spouses and partners of law enforcement officers from getting emergency protection in situations where they feel they are in imminent danger.
The discovery was made amid a months-long investigation prompted by a Cleveland County woman who says she was denied help by a magistrate because her then-husband was a state trooper.
Jennifer Fredell went to a magistrate in the spring 2015 seeking an emergency protective order under Chapter 50B of the North Carolina General Statutes. The law allows a magistrate to issue a protective order to people who present evidence they are a victim of domestic violence when a judge is not available to issue one.
But Magistrate Ashlyn Harris refused to issue a protective order against Fredell's then-husband because he was a state trooper.
Court testimony outlines different rules
Harris testified under oath at a hearing in Fredell's divorce case that her office does not issue protective orders against members of law enforcement.
"In this situation, because it was involving a law enforcement officer, there was a little bit more than just a normal 50B situation," Harris said. "I got law enforcement involved, had an officer show up at my office to speak with her."
"We do not get involved, usually, as far as issuing charges if a law enforcement officer is involved without law enforcement coming in and doing a report and doing an investigation," Harris said later in response to an attorney's question. She later said the is her office's policy.
Because of that policy, Harris testified, she did not ask Fredell if she had any evidence that would have substantiated her claims of domestic violence. If Harris had, Fredell and her attorney say, the magistrate would have been presented with a folder of evidence that included pictures of a bruise on Fredell's arm.
"If she would have presented (that) to me, I would have still gotten law enforcement involved to do an investigation prior to issuing charges because (Fredell's then-husband) was a law enforcement officer," Harris said in court. "I would have done the same thing had the roles been reversed."
Harris told Fredell's attorney she would not have treated the complaint that same way had it come from someone who was not married to a law enforcement officer.
State law requires equal treatment
On Your Side Investigates played portions of Harris' testimony for Melanie Crenshaw, a board certified family law attorney in Greensboro who does not practice in Cleveland County and was not familiar with Fredell's case prior to our interview.
"It is surprising to me," Crenshaw said of Harris' testimony outlining a separate set of rules for law enforcement officers. "If we look at the Chapter 50B statute, there is no exception there for law enforcement in those protocols, so I'm not sure why Cleveland County has adopted a different protocol."
Crenshaw said the concept of calling a law enforcement officer to investigate allegations of domestic violence prior to issuing a protective order pursuant to Chapter 50B contradicts the purpose of the statute.
"The title of the order itself says its ex parte, which means without the party present. So, in essence, they are violating that by bringing in members of law enforcement to speak with the alleged victim."
Magistrates in Cleveland County are supervised by Chief District Court Judge Larry Wilson. By phone, Wilson said it would be a violation of state law to refuse to issue an emergency protective order simply because it involves a member of law enforcement.
"There may be some misunderstanding on the magistrate's part or some crossing of the line," Wilson said. "This will be something I need to discuss with other magistrates."
A judge issued a protective order against Fredell's then-husband a day after she was refused one by Harris.
Harris, the magistrate, has not responded to multiple calls and emails from On Your Side Investigates seeking comment.
Fredell's ex-husband has not been charged with a crime. His attorney, Becky Brown provided the following comment on her client's behalf:
"Her case was fully vetted. Both parties filed domestic violence actions, which both parties later dismissed. Ms. Fredell appeared before the magistrate for a civil restraining order stating her chief desire was to seek custody. This is an abuse of the system and does harm to domestic violence victims across our state."