When Kenneth Post and his wife, Raihanah Alsameai, filed last week for a protection from harassment order – an attempt to stop their Auburn neighbors from threatening them with dogs and terrorizing them with racial slurs – they joined others in taking a neighborhood dispute to the courts.
Unlike the better-known protection from abuse order, which covers family members, spouses and people who’ve dated, protection from harassment orders govern friends, co-workers, neighbors and businesses. Nearly 4,600 protection from harassment orders were filed in Maine last year, with 368 of them going through Lewiston District Court.
Experts agree that some of those requests were valid and necessary, and no one claims Post and Alsameai shouldn’t have gotten their protection order.
But some believe too many others are turning to the courts when a neighborly chat would have solved their problem.
“I personally think it’s abused. A Hatfield and McCoy kind of thing,” said Oxford County Chief Deputy Dane Tripp. “I think everyone is being childish about it.”
Protection from harassment orders work the same way as protection from abuse orders: A complaint is filed with the district court. An immediate, temporary order can be requested. A court hearing is held for a final protection order, which can force one person to stay away from the other and prohibit threats and property damage.
Unlike abuse orders, which are free, there is a $30 fee for harassment orders. However, that fee can be waived.
And unlike protection from abuse orders, which require only one abusive act in order to get protection, harassment orders can require three acts of harassment. However, someone can get a harassment order after one threat, violent incident or criminal act.
In the Lewiston-Auburn area, police say harassment orders are most often filed against former friends or ex-roommates. The next most common: neighbors.
“It’s getting to be more popular,” said Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins.
His department deals with a few harassment orders every week. Often the neighborhood dispute starts over property lines, dogs or trespassing.
“Could it be taken care of if people sat down and talked? Yes. But sometimes that just doesn’t happen,” Desjardins said.
A court-ordered separation can help the situation.
“It seems like, in more cases than not, it gives them a cooling off period,” Desjardins said.
But with nearly 4,600 orders filed last year, are too many people using the court to resolve a fight they could have resolved on their own?
“Quite honestly, I think it’s too common,” Tripp said. “The courts are backlogged as it is.”
Police say neighbors should try to talk to each other first. If they don’t feel safe doing that – or if they’ve repeatedly tried and failed – then ask the police for help. Local police can take a complaint and issue an official warning, a kind of lower-grade protection order.
“It’s a courtesy we offer as part of the job,” said Auburn Lt. Scott Watkins.
If that doesn’t work, police say, then try court.
“I’d like to think it (a court order) is working,” Desjardins said. “But I’d like to see people sit down and talk, too.”