BEVERLY — When he found out that his 16-year-old daughter was planning a secret rendezvous with a 24-year-old man, a Beverly father did what most fathers would do: He tried to protect her.
But his effort — obtaining a restraining order against the man on his daughter’s behalf — went too far, the state’s highest court said this week.
The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that Gregory Compton’s plans, “while understandably reprehensible to the father,” did not rise to the level of physical abuse. The court ordered that the restraining order against Compton not only be vacated but literally destroyed.
But the court did agree with the dad and the Salem District Court judge who issued the order on another point, finding that relationships carried out primarily online can still be considered “substantive dating relationships” under the state’s domestic restraining order law.
“The content of the conversations were intimate, reflected a mutual romantic relationship and expressed a mutual desire to engage in sexual relations,” Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote. “In these circumstances, we conclude that a substantive dating relationship was established.”
That decision on Wednesday sets a precedent that now allows judges to consider forms of contact like instant messaging or Skype when deciding whether someone qualifies for a restraining order.
The case started in 2011, when the parents, who monitored their daughter’s email, became aware that she was emailing and engaging in online chats with Compton. She had met Compton while traveling with her family in England, and they exchanged email addresses. At first, she claimed to be 18 but quickly admitted that she was younger.
For two months, the two engaged in increasingly explicit discussions online, sometimes spending hours a day communicating.
Then Compton, who lives in England, told her he was planning a visit and wanted to see her. He urged her to enlist her friends to concoct a cover story for her so she could spend a night with him at Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel, where, he promised, among other things, to kiss her “all over” and serve alcohol.
That sent the girl’s father to Salem District Court, where he was granted an emergency restraining order barring Compton from contact with his daughter. A couple of weeks later, after a hearing where Compton was also present, Judge Michael Lauranzano granted a restraining order good for a full year.
Under the law, parents of minors are allowed to seek restraining orders on their behalf, even if, as in this case, the child is opposed to one.
“Obviously, he was concerned about protecting his daughter and making sure this did not happen,” said lawyer Robert Peck, who represents the family.
At the hearing, in October 2011, Compton and his lawyer insisted that he had no plans to hurt the girl, but Lauranzano rejected that argument, asking, “We’re supposed to wait until (Compton) meets with this 16-year-old girl and they consummate what they both contemplated in these email messages, before (the father) can come in and get a restraining order?”
While the girl, at 16, would have been legally able to consent, Peck suggested that the harm would come from Compton serving her alcohol.
In his brief, Peck told the SJC, “Providing alcohol to a minor is clearly a threat to do physical harm to that minor. And that is particularly true when the ultimate goal of the defendant is to ply a 16-year-old with alcohol in order to lower her inhibitions and/or to lower her ability to make mature decisions about having sexual relations — again bringing into question whether any consent to do so by her would be voluntary.
“Clearly, the district court judge agreed this was an appropriate avenue to protect the daughter from any possible harm,” Peck said.
Compton and his lawyer, Mark Engel, argued that it was not.
While sympathetic to the dad (“I suspect that if I were in his position, I would try to do the same thing,” Engel said), the required factors, either fear or imminent threat of physical harm or of forced or coerced sexual relations, did not exist.
“The basic premise of our argument was that there was no abuse,” Engel said. “There were none of the required incidents of abuse, and the young woman’s father acknowledged that in court. The lack of a substantive dating relationship was really incidental to our position, but clearly that was why they took the case.”
In fact, the SJC solicited “friend of the court” briefs on the issue last year before hearing arguments in November.
Peck said he does not believe the family, who attended the hearing, was surprised by the decision, given the tone of the justice’s questions last fall.
A message left for the family was not returned.
Engel said he has not heard from Compton after emailing him a copy of the ruling. But he said that as far as he’s aware, Compton complied fully with the order and has had no contact with the girl.
Now that she is 18, Peck said, it’s entirely up to her whom she chooses to date.