Legislature considers bill to strengthen sex assault laws

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AUGUSTA — State lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it easier for victims to report sexual offenses and increase convictions for crimes that now go unpunished, according to its sponsor.

Supporters of LD 654 testified before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee earlier this month that the bill would tighten up laws surrounding a crime that remains vastly underreported in Maine.

Opponents, on the other hand, argued that it would place burdensome restrictions on couples.

The committee voted 10-2 to recommend passage of the bill that was introduced by Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, a former Maine attorney general.

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The measure creates a new violation under which an individual can be found guilty of gross sexual assault if that person “engages in a sexual act with another person who has not consented to the sexual act.”

The bill also would repeal a clause that, under certain circumstances, has prevented individuals from being prosecuted because the victim voluntarily consumed drugs or other intoxicants.

“This makes it easier for victims to come forward and report that they have been sexually assaulted even if the victims have been assumed to have been drinking or using drugs,” Carpenter said. “Far too many sexual assaults go unreported and even fewer are prosecuted. Our law, as currently written, doesn’t do enough to protect victims. Sex without consent isn’t sex. It’s assault. This bill makes that distinction clear.”

Elizabeth Ward Saxl of the Maine Coalition on Sexual Assault (MECASA), who testified in favor of the bill on April 5, said most people would agree it is a crime when a victim is sexually assaulted while unconscious from too much alcohol or drug use.

But convictions are not assured under some provisions of the Maine criminal code, she told lawmakers.

“This is a vestige of the old ‘She should have known better’ thinking,” she testified. “She shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt; She shouldn’t have been at that party; She shouldn’t have been drinking,” said Ward Saxl. “It is long past time for this section of the code to disappear.”

Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins, who asked Carpenter to introduce the bill, agreed with Ward Saxl.

In some cases where a gross sexual assault charge has been reported, Collins said, all that the state would be able to charge the offender with would be furnishing liquor to a minor or allowing consumption of liquor by a minor, which are misdemeanors.

Concerning crimes of unlawful sexual contact and unlawful sexual touching, the bill also eliminates language specifying that for the defendant to be found guilty, the victim has not “expressly or impliedly acquiesced in” the act.

As proposed, the language is changed to read that the defendant can be found guilty if the victim has not “consented to” the sexual contact or sexual touching.

Walter McKee, an attorney and legislative chairman of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, took exception to the change in wording and asked committee members to vote the bill down.

“While this may seem at first blush to be relatively minor, it injects in the determination of whether a sexual offense has been committed the notion that there must be some specific, definitive act of consent when a person is involved in a sexual act,” he told lawmakers. “People simply do not have those direct, person-to-person communications when involved in sexual acts.”

McKee argued that under Maine law, “no still means no, as it has for decades.”

He argued that if the bill passed, sexual acts would take place only after specific, detailed discussions between partners.

Collins disagreed.

“Maine currently does not have a concept of ‘no still means no’ under the criminal code, as suggested by the criminal code by the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers,” he said. “No has never meant no under Maine’s criminal code concerning sexual acts and LD 654 seeks to remedy this … by making it illegal to engage in a sex act with another person when that other person has not consented to the sexual act.”

LD 654 now faces votes by both chambers of the Legislature.

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