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OOPS! Misunderstanding Orders of Protection Can Be Expen$ive

By David Sheffield. Esq.

Don't mess around with Orders of Protection. In DeWitt v. Whitten, 1 CA-SA 12-0177 (Ariz.App.Div.1, 2012), there was a contentious divorce in which Ms. DeWitt was granted an Order of Protection against Mr. DeWitt, thus excluding him from the marital home. Upon his request, the court made an exception for Mr. DeWitt to return to the home, under supervision, to retrieve his personal belongings. The supervisor the court selected was the realtor who had been asked to sell the family home so the proceeds could be split. What Mr. DeWitt may not have realized is that once appointed by the judge, the realtor became an officer of the court. That made it the realtor's duty to report that instead of just getting his toothbrush, Mr. DeWitt had decided that "personal belongings" included, among other things: speakers, a fan, and parts of the home's sprinkler system.

Mr. DeWitt's defense? Those items were his, thus he was allowed to take them. The court ruled that Mr. DeWitt knew he was not to enter the house except with permission, and he knew that he was only permitted to enter for the purpose of getting his personal belongings, and he also knew that the house was going to be sold, and therefore he knew or should have known that he was not allowed to remove fixtures from the house. The court found him in contempt and ordered him to pay damages to the realtor as well as to Ms. DeWitt on penalty of imprisonment.

Mr. DeWitt filed an appeal, arguing that the family court had not specifically prohibited taking the home's fixtures. The Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that because the Order of Protection had said he was not to enter the house at all, Mr. DeWitt should have understood the exception allowing him to get his belongings as not including house fixtures. Ms. DeWitt was awarded her legal costs by the appeals court, which, together with the damages ordered by the trial court, brought the bill for Mr. DeWitt's mistake to several thousand dollars, with the possibility of more to come.

Notably, the court did not decide whether Mr. DeWitt was entitled to the property he removed; they may have been his, but because he took them in violation of the Order of Protection, he ended up costing himself many times more than the items were worth. This case serves as a good reminder that Orders of Protection need to be taken seriously. If you are involved in an Arizona family law case involving an Order of Protection, strongly consider consulting an experienced Arizona family law attorney for help. 

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