A suite of measures that would close loopholes in North Carolina’s sexual assault rules and raise the length of time for victims of child sexual abuse to sue assailants will go to the General Assembly this week for a yea or nay vote.
NC Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Union, a co-chairman of the SB 199 conference committee, confirmed late Tuesday to Carolina Public Press that the committee has reached an agreement for the measures in the bill.
“Tomorrow the various members of the conference committee will give their signatures to that report, and likely it will be voted on Thursday in both the House and Senate,” Riddell said.
The legislation includes a change to a legal precedent unique to North Carolina, which Carolina Public Press and its collaborative partners highlighted in the series Seeking Conviction in March.
Everywhere in the United States, continuing sexual activity once the other party withdraws consent is a crime, except in North Carolina, due to a 40-year-old Court of Appeals ruling.
In the 40 years since that ruling, no other attempt to change that precedent has come so far along in the legislative process.
Another Court of Appeals precedent from more than a decade ago means it’s not illegal to have sexual relations with someone who is incapacitated, as long as the person incapacitated himself or herself through drinking or drug use.
The bill also increases the age by which victims of child abuse can sue their assailants beyond today’s current maximum of 21 years old.
Without a change in the law, Riddell said earlier this month, “it tilts justice in favor of the perpetrator. All they have to do is keep you quiet until you turn 21.”
Riddell’s legislation proposes an increase to that civil statute of limitations, but by how much will be revealed when the committee report is released within the next day or so. His legislation originally sought 38 as the cutoff for civil suits, however, he said some members wanted a lower age of 28. The concerns about too high of an age during committee negotiations echo some discussions on the House floor about his bill, Riddell said recently.
Wait too long to sue, he said, “and the ability to get evidence preserved and into the courtroom, people’s memories, that sort of thing fades over time,” Riddell said. “There are people who have followed this bill who write to me almost weekly because they understand what it means.”
Series highlighted problems with sexual assault laws
In March, CPP and nearly a dozen media partners produced the series Seeking Conviction, which investigated problems with sexual assault prosecutions in North Carolina, including the legal precedents the proposed legislation addresses.
Part of this project examined state court records spanning 4½ years to calculate conviction rates for sexual assault crimes. That analysis found fewer than 1 in 4 defendants charged with a sexual assault are eventually convicted of that crime or a lesser related one. In 38 of North Carolina’s counties, no convictions were recorded at all.
Prosecutors and survivors of sexual assault interviewed for the series described frustration with the legal precedents on revoking consent and incapacitation. Some legislators expressed hope that movement on reforms would occur in 2019.
However, several bills addressing these issues had died in committee in recent years.
Shortly after Seeking Conviction series began publication, several bills were proposed, with some gaining clear traction. The House passed a proposal to close the incapacitation loophole unanimously.
What happens to proposed reforms now?
Ultimately, the proposals in several of those earlier bills were placed into SB 199, which reached its final form in conference committee this week. As a result, all of the proposals will live or die together as a package of related reforms.
Lawmakers are expected to vote on SB 199 Thursday, which will likely be the last day of the session. Because it emerged from a conference committee, lawmakers must give it an up-or-down vote and cannot amend it further.
If lawmakers in both the House and Senate approve the bill, it will head to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. When asked for comment Tuesday, governor’s spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said the governor will carefully review SB 199.
“As attorney general and as governor, Gov. Cooper always has been a strong advocate for policies that protect victims, particularly those too young to advocate for themselves,” MacMillan said.
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