BOSTON — Massachusetts’ highest court on Wednesday ruled that substantive dating relationships developed and maintained using instant messaging, Skype, emails and other electronic communications are subject to the state’s domestic abuse laws.
The Supreme Judicial Court made the ruling in overturning a restraining order against a British man who was 24 when he developed a relationship with a 16-year-old Massachusetts girl after she visited London in 2011.
The court said Gregory James Compton was not a threat to the girl, in overturning the restraining order the girl’s father had obtained against Compton under the state’s domestic abuse law.
Mistreatment stemming from relationships formed online and through other means of electronic communications are not specifically identified in Massachusetts’ law.
In its decision posted online, the court said its ruling “reflects the changing nature of relationships and, specifically, the fact that an increasing number of relationships, including ones involving teenagers, are being conducted electronically.”
Compton used real-time electronic communications to maintain the relationship with the teen after she returned home, professing his love for her, discussing the age of consent for sex and planning a trip to Massachusetts for a “sneaky sleepover” while he was in town. He also talked about having a conversation in his hotel room “with somthing gd in our hands,” an apparent reference to drinking alcohol.
The high court, on its own initiative, took the case from a lower court. Its ruling Wednesday said the domestic abuse law “must be interpreted to protect all who are in a substantive dating relationship from abuse, regardless of whether the relationship was developed or conducted by the use of technology.”
The ruling said Massachusetts courts can determine whether a couple is in a substantive dating relationship by considering the nature, frequency and length of their communications and if either person has ended the relationship.
“Clearly the court took the case … on its own initiative because, I think, they wanted to address this issue of electronic dating and whether, under the statute, electronic communication could form the basis of a substantive dating relationship – which is one of the basis under the statute which gives the court the authority to issue an abuse order,” said lawyer Mark Engel, who represented Compton in the lower court.
Robert Peck, an attorney for the girl’s father, said in a telephone interview from Salem that the decision recognizes that more people are using various forms of social media to communicate and establish relationships in real time.
What the Supreme Judicial Court “has done is to bring the reality of today into clear focus” for applications under domestic abuse laws to relationships formed by previously nontraditional means such as the Internet, Skype, Facebook, and instant messaging, Peck said.
The girl’s parents discovered the communication and her father secured the restraining order, which was served to Compton after he arrived at an inn near the family home in November.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the man’s conduct did not rise to the level of abuse because he did not harm or try to harm her physically, and did not cause the girl to engage in a sexual relationship by force, threat or duress. Those standards are set under a state’s domestic abuse law that enables adults, children and others living in a home to secure a restraining order directing someone to refrain from abuse or contact.
The court also found that the teen was capable of agreeing to sex because she is older than the state consent age of 16.
“The defendant’s passing references in his electronic communications with the daughter implying that he might furnish her with alcohol, while understandably reprehensible to the father, is not evidence suggesting physical abuse or evidence that the defendant planned to give alcohol to her in order to have involuntary sexual relations with her, certainly a form of physical abuse,” the court said. “We conclude that this conduct does not meet the definition of `abuse”‘ under the state domestic abuse law.