What The Word "Contact" Really Means When It Comes To Protective Orders (Wyant v. Commonwealth of Virginia)

Typically, judges do not debate the plain and ordinary meaning of English words. However, occasionally, court’s struggle to define certain terms you might think are express or readily delineated. In fact, this is exactly what happened in the case of Wyant v. Commonwealth of Virginia, when the Virginia Court of Appeals grappled with the meaning of the word “contact.”

In the Wyant case, Mr. Wyant (“Wyant”) had a protective order against him that prohibited him from having “contact of any kind with the petitioner.” Ten (10) days after the protective order was entered (and still in effect), Wyant parked in front of the Petitioner’s neighbor’s house, walked up to the property line and began taking photographs in the general direction of the Petitioner’s house. Wyant stated he had no idea whether the Petitioner was even home, and was simply taking pictures of cars for a future court hearing. The Petitioner, on the other hand, claimed that Wyant clearly knew that she was home, and was standing about fifty (50) feet away from her when he was snapping pictures. However, the Petitioner did agree that Wyant had no verbal or physical contact with her of any kind.

One would think that Wyant did not violate the prohibition on contact with the Petitioner. But the Virginia Court of Appeals disagreed. Citing to the precedent set forth in Elliott vs. The Commonwealth of Virginia (2009), the Court found that Wyant intentionally positioned himself in such a way as to “pierce the protective barrier” between himself and the Petitioner in an effort to visually communicate with her.

From this case, you would think Virginia courts apply a broader definition of the term “contact” beyond physical touching and oral communication. Or does it?

In the Elliott case, the very case the Court relied upon in reaching the determination that Wyant made contact with the Petitioner, there was a nearly identical protective order against Mr. Elliott (“Elliott”) that prevented any contact with the Petitioner, as well as her family members. As the parties were leaving the courthouse on an unrelated matter, Elliott verbally threatened the Petitioner’s mother – claiming he would beat the family back to their house. And he did. He positioned his truck about a block away from the Petitioner’s home, got out of his truck, and with a clear line of sight made gestures towards the Petitioner.

So, Elliott clearly violated the no contact order, right?

Wrong! The Virginia Supreme Court found that protective orders are designed to protect the physical safety and wellbeing of a petitioner; and therefore, the term “contact” should be limited to conduct which “pierces that protective barrier” (this is where the Wyant Court got the language). The Court ultimately concluded that because Elliott was a block away, he posed no threat to the safety and wellbeing of the Petitioner. Accordingly, he did not violate the prohibition on contact with her.

So Wyant, who had no verbal or physical contact with the Petitioner, was found guilty of violating the protective order; while Elliott, who made verbal threats and hand gestures towards the Petitioner and her family, was off the hook. If you’re confused by this, you should be. Nonetheless, both cases remain good law.

The takeaway from these cases is that not only can you abandon any preconceived notions you have of the meaning of the word “contact,” you should play it extremely safe if you have a protective order entered against you. Conversely, if you are the person meant to be shielded by a protective order, you can still report conduct that falls short of physical touching or oral communication.

If you feel that your health or wellbeing is being threatened and you are in need of a protective order, or have any other family law issue, you should contact a knowledgeable family law attorney right away. The experienced family law attorneys at the DiPietro Family Law Group have decades of experience handling all types of family law matters and are here to help you. Contact one of the DiPietro family law attorneys today to schedule a consultation with a caring professional at (888) 530-4374.

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