AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Protective Order Registry, created by a state law in the last legislative session, is operational in all of the state’s 254 counties.
The registry lists protective orders issued by courts in the state relating to domestic violence, stalking, human trafficking, dating violence and abuse. The public-facing website protects victim privacy, but shares court information, cause numbers and the person whom the order is against. Each entry includes that person’s full name, birth year, residence county, race, ethnicity and relevant dates for the order, like when the order was issued and when it expires.
It also streamlines information for law enforcement agencies investigating someone’s possible history of violence.
The law is named in honor of Monica Deming, an Odessa mother murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend in 2015. He had been the subject of two prior protective orders, which Deming did not know about.
“The goal here is to basically equip and empower people with information through these public records, so that they are less likely to be victims of domestic violence,” State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, who led the effort in the Texas House, said.
“Historically, in order to find a protective order that’s been issued by a court, although it’s a public document, it’s a public record, you’d have to go into the courthouse in that particular county where it was issued, and find it there, there was no way to access it unless you physically went to the courthouse,” Landgraf said. “That enabled individuals who have a history of committing acts of domestic violence to basically hide their history just by concealing themselves behind jurisdictional lines.”
Landgraf said the implementation of the registry highlights no matter where someone is in the state, the order is more easily searchable.
Clerks began entering data into the system when the law took effect on Sept. 1, and the reporting became mandatory on Oct. 15. The Office of Court Administration is leading training for courts and law enforcement agencies on using the system.
“What we’re doing is working with the over 80,000 law enforcement officers in the state to make sure that they have access to this information,” David Slayton, administrative director for the Texas Office of Court Administration, said.
“We’re working with them to make sure that they have someone, either the individual officer or someone in their office, that has login access to that restricted information that only the law enforcement officers have access to, training them on how to get that, training them on what it means, so that the law enforcement officer on the street can have access to that whenever they need it most.”
“We’re also working with the clerks and judges about entering this information accurately into the system, when things need to be entered, timeliness of it, and making sure the information is as current and accurate as it needs to be,” Slayton said.
Slayton said more than 27,000 orders are filed each year. More than 2,200 have been added to the system since the law took effect.
“While law enforcement will have access to all of the entries, the public will only see final protective orders on the site,” Slayton said.
One caveat to the system is even though the victim’s information will not show up on the public search, the victim in the case must grant approval for the order to appear in the public-facing search tool. Slayton said only one entry had been approved for public release since the creation of the program, meaning if someone searches a name and the search does not turn up any results, that does not mean the person does not have a protective order against them.
“It’s a very helpful and very useful tool, but it is not the end all be all,” Landgraf added.
“We did want to balance this transparency with the rights of victims as much as possible, and I think we found a happy medium,” Landgraf said. “It’s certainly not a perfect situation, but I think we got it as close as we could.”
Landgraf said he was open to adjustments to the bill for the next legislative session to address some additional scenarios, like if there’s disagreement between multiple victims under the same order about consenting to publication.
“I’m sure we’ll find plenty of other areas where we can improve, and I’m not only expecting that, I’m looking for opportunities to improve,” Landgraf said.
Critics of the law argued future employers could use the database against possible hires.
Defense attorney Allen Place said in 2017 personal information should not be publicized for civil rulings, where the burden of proof is lower than criminal court.
“It just says, who it is and the final result, and there’s not going to be any attempt to define any sort of gray area,” Place said after the legislation was first filed, explaining that in a divorce, attorneys can recommend a protective order out of an abundance of caution and a public database could be misused out of spite.
Deming’s father, Jon Nielson, said in 2017 when the legislation was first introduced that nothing can bring back his daughter—the mother of his grandson—but he said he believed his daughter would still be alive if this law had been in place.
“No doubt in my mind,” Nielson said.
“Of course we can’t bring her back but maybe we can save somebody else,” he explained. “And I think this database is the answer.”
The registry is accessible for free on the Texas Courts website.