“I never thought it could happen to me.”
The cliché exists for good reason. Unless we find ourselves the victim of a crime, it’s easy to never consider that a traumatic episode might play out in our own lives until we suddenly find that it can, indeed, happen to us.
For that reason, we asked our friend Jarrod Holtsclaw, Greene County Prosecutor, to help provide some important information on what to do if you ever find yourself in such a situation. From helpful resources to immediate action steps, Jarrod’s advice can help you navigate the disorienting waters of victimhood.
Q: It can be difficult to think clearly in the wake of a traumatic event. What are some of the first steps a person should try to take?
A: Safety should be your first concern. After making sure you’re okay, check to see if those around you are also all right. If you’re at home, check in with your family members. If you’re in a vehicle, make sure everyone in the vehicle is all right, then check on those in the surrounding area. Be sure to contact emergency services as soon as possible.
Next, do your best to document what just happened. Whether it’s recording video or taking photos with your phone, taking mental notes, and/or talking with other witnesses, it’s important you try to document what occurred, who is responsible and what the loss was—whether property damage, physical harm or both. Clearly your health is the number one concern, but collecting evidence can easily get lost in the shuffle. Having a solid record of what took place will help prosecution down the road.
Once a case has been filed, I encourage people to reach out to the prosecutor’s office and speak with the Victim’s Advocate, whose sole purpose is to provide support services for victims of crime, especially when it comes to knowing and exercising your rights. We try to reach out to victims shortly after the case is filed.
Finally, there’s often mental or emotional injury as a result of a crime. Mentally recovering from a traumatic experience can be as difficult as recovering physically. I encourage people to seek out counseling or support groups and part of their process. Victim’s Advocates can be an excellent resource for connecting you with people who have either shared your experience or those trained to help you work through it.
Q: What are some important dos and don’ts as a victim of a crime?
A: First, always cooperate with the police and the prosecutor. From making the decision of how to file charges through seeking restitution, providing the police and prosecutor with the information they request will make everything run more smoothly.
Second, as mentioned earlier, document your losses as soon as possible. It’s difficult to go back and remember exactly what happened if six weeks or even six months have passed.
Third, do not confront the suspect or the family. Let the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the criminal justice system dole out the punishment. Never try to take matters into your own hands.
Fourth, do not take your case to social media. Nowadays, attorneys and investigators research witnesses’ social media accounts to determine what type of person they are. I’ve had cases where I’m getting ready for trial and an attorney has provided me with Facebook posts from my victim that were not flattering and definitely not helpful for our prosecution. I caution anyone to stay off of social media until the case is over.
Lastly, do not try to recoup more than what you’ve actually lost. People will sometimes try to exaggerate their losses and restitution figures. If that comes to light during the sentencing phase, it makes the victim look bad. It could also result in the judge giving less weight to the victim’s impact statement, if they think the victim is trying to take advantage of the situation.
Q: What is the difference in restitution between a criminal case and a civil suit?
A: As prosecutors, under statute, we are able to seek restitution for victims of crime. But the statute also makes it clear that we can only seek monetary amounts for expenses directly tied to losses related to the crime (e.g. medical bills, deductibles for insurance, replacement of items that were either damaged or stolen). We cannot seek losses for pain and suffering, emotional distress, or loss of consortium (when you lose a spouse or a spouse becomes incapacitated). Those are the provinces of a civil attorney.
Also, there may be times where there’s a loss associated with a particular criminal case and the defendant is not directly responsible, but a third party is—perhaps their car malfunctioned, so the automobile manufacturer can be held responsible for a portion of your damages. Such damages cannot be sought through criminal restitution. A civil attorney will be able to advise whether a civil suit against a third party is appropriate.
Q: Anything that would be helpful for victims of a crime to keep in mind?
A: If you’re a victim of a serious offense, oftentimes the offender is not going to have the means to pay you back. To account for this, the state has what’s called a Violent Crime Compensation Fund that assists victims in getting some money back from those who are unable to pay.