Federal and State Courts Address Sexual Violence
RAINN keeps an eye on court cases that may impact how perpetrators are prosecuted, how victims access support, and how sexual violence can be prevented. Below are summaries of recent federal and state cases that influence RAINN’s public policy work.
Privacy and Communication
After a 3-year-old boy reported to his daycare teacher that he was being abused by his mother’s boyfriend, this case raised the question of whether or not a child’s report of abuse to a teacher could be heard in court. Because the child was deemed too young to testify, the defendant argued that the statements made by the victim to his teachers should not be admissible at trial because it would violate his constitutional right to confront witnesses testifying against him.
The Supreme Court of Ohio agreed with the defendant’s position, reasoning that because the teacher is a mandatory reporter of child abuse, he or she was acting as a law enforcement officer while listening to the child’s report. The court therefore deemed that the conversation between the teacher and the victim was considered gathering evidence for a future trial, and, allowing this “out-of-trial” testimony to be admitted, without giving the defendant a chance to cross-examine the witness, would be unconstitutional.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the child’s statements to his teacher were in fact admissible at trial. According to the Court, the child’s statements occurred during a time of “ongoing emergency,” and the teacher’s communication with the victim was not in any way an attempt to create out-of-trial testimony. As a result, allowing the statements to be admissible against the defendant does not violate the Constitution. The Court added that “statements by very young children will rarely, if ever, implicate the Confrontation Clause,” prompting many child abuse victims’ advocates to see this as a strong victory.
- The result: The Supreme Court’s ruling increases the likelihood that young children’s statements of abuse can be admitted in court as evidence against their abuser, even if the child is unable to testify in court against the accused.
Elonis v. United States
13-983, Anthony Douglas Elonis v. United States. U.S. Supreme Court. Decided June 1, 2015.
This case marked the first time that the Supreme Court heard a case considering the limits of free speech on social media. The question at hand: when is online harassment a threat, and when is it free speech?
Anthony Elonis was originally convicted for posting threats on Facebook about raping and murdering his estranged wife, as well as threats about harming law enforcement officers and students in a kindergarten class. His wife testified that she interpreted the posts as threats, but Elonis claimed that his writing was an artistic coping mechanism for his depression. The National Center for Victims of Crime filed a brief in support of the government’s case against Elonis, saying that “victims of stalking are financially, emotionally, and socially burdened by the crime regardless of the subjective intent of the speaker.” This case raised the question of where to draw the line on freedom of speech when that speech causes another individual to fear for their own safety.
In the final ruling, the Supreme Court found that proof of intent was required to consider the posts a true threat. In Elonis’s case, the Court did not find proof that he intended to follow through on his words, despite being graphic and causing fear.
- The result: This ruling makes it more difficult to convict someone who harasses another person online because it allows the harasser to argue they never intended to truly threaten their victim.
A federal prisoner sued the United States government under the Federal Tort Claims Act for assault and battery, saying he was sexually assaulted by prison guards employed by the government. The question in the case was whether or not the federal government could be sued and held liable for the actions of its employees when the employees commit certain harms. Usually for acts like assault and battery, the government can only be sued if the acts were committed during a time when the employee was acting within the scope of that employee’s duties. Both the district court and the reviewing appellate court dismissed the case because the acts were not committed under the scope of a law enforcement officer’s employment, which both courts defined as acts that take place only when the officer is conducting searches, seizures of evidence, or arrests.
However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts’ opinions. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that employment duties of law enforcement officials are not as limited as the lower courts stated. As a result, victims may be able to sue the government for harms committed by law enforcement officials, even if the harm occurred during an activity other than a search, seizure, or arrest, as was allegedly the case in this lawsuit. Some feel that this decision will incentivize the government to help quell this type of misconduct from law enforcement officials, especially prison guards.
- The result: This decision makes it easier for victims to sue the government for damages after being assaulted by a law enforcement official employed by the United States government.
Kaley v. United States
12-464, Kaley v. United States. U.S. Supreme Court. Docketed March 18, 2013.
The Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA) created the Crime Victims Fund (the “Fund”), which directs hundreds of millions of dollars each year to victims and victim service providers. The Fund is supported through fines paid by perpetrators who are found guilty of a crime, as part of their sentence. These fines help support state victim compensation programs.
During a trial, the courts will often freeze the alleged perpetrator’s assets, meaning the perpetrator and their family cannot access any of their financial accounts. Asset freezing prevents the defendant from depleting their wealth before the jury hands over a verdict. If assets are not frozen, the defendant is free to spend or reallocate their assets until there is nothing left to contribute to the Fund in the event of a guilty verdict.
Kaley challenged the constitutionality of the court to freeze the defendant’s assets during the trial. The Supreme Court determined that asset-freezing is constitutional, as long as a grand jury has already found probable cause that the crime was committed.
- The result: This ruling prevents a perpetrator from intentionally "going broke" before a final verdict is delivered, ensuring that, if found guilty, the perpetrator will be able to contribute to the Crime Victims Fund.
Paroline v. United States
12-8561, Doyle Randall Paroline v. United States, et al. U.S. Supreme Court. Docketed February 5, 2013.
This Supreme Court case addressed a victim’s ability to obtain compensation for crimes committed against them as a child. A federal law, the Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA), allows eligible survivors of sexual violence to obtain financial compensation for harm, referred to as “restitution,” from the abuser. The case determined whether someone who possesses child pornography causes direct harm to the depicted child, or if only those who create the pornography actually victimize the child.
Doyle Randall Paroline pled guilty to possessing 150 to 300 images of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Two images were of a child named Amy, whose father and uncle sexually abused her and then put pictures displaying this abuse online, where Mr. Paroline obtained them.
As an adult, Amy sought restitution from Mr. Paroline, citing federal mandatory restitution laws as the grounds for recovering restitution from Mr. Paroline even though he was neither the originator of the pictures nor the direct abuser. The Supreme Court held that people in possession of child pornography could be made to pay restitution, but only in proportion to the harm they directly caused the survivor.
In response to this decision, RAINN worked with Senators Hatch (R-UT) and Schumer (D-NY) and other supporters on the Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Restitution Act, which ensures that victims like Amy will be able to request the financial help to which they have a right, and a need.
- The result: This ruling made it easier for victims of child pornography to request and obtain financial restitution from those who are found guilty of possessing these illegal images.
DNA Collection from Arrestees
Maryland v. King
Maryland v. King, 133 S. Ct. 1958 U.S. 2013.
In the landmark case Maryland v. King, described by Justice Alito as “perhaps the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades,” the Supreme Court ruled that collecting DNA evidence is just like fingerprinting—a valid procedure that law enforcement can perform on individuals arrested for violent crimes.
Following his arrest for assault in 2009, Alonzo King had his cheek swabbed—a process characterized by Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion as a “minor intrusion.” A crime lab analyzed the swab, and the resulting DNA profile was entered in the federal database, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). King’s DNA was linked to a six-year-old crime scene, and he was subsequently convicted for the rape of a 53-year-old woman at gunpoint.
When King appealed his conviction, a Maryland court overturned it, ensuring that King would be held responsible for the rape committed years prior. Maryland is one of 28 states, along with the federal government, that collect DNA after someone is arrested on felony charges, essentially treating DNA evidence as a more sophisticated and accurate version of fingerprints. The remaining states wait until a conviction to collect DNA from perpetrators.
- The result: This ruling made it easier for law enforcement to solve open cases by expanding opportunities to collect DNA evidence from perpetrators of violent crimes.
A 17-year-old in Oklahoma was charged with rape and forcible oral sodomy after he allegedly sexually assaulted an intoxicated and unconscious 16-year-old girl. While he claimed the acts were consensual, the victim does not remember the series of events and several other witnesses described how she was drifting in and out of consciousness throughout the night. However, both charges against the defendant were dismissed by the district court in Oklahoma because the state’s sexual assault laws do not mention either intoxication or unconsciousness as elements of the crimes with which the defendant was charged.
In a 5-0 decision that incited outrage from prosecutors and many people who were surprised with the ruling, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the lower court. The court held that under the law as it is written in Oklahoma “forcible sodomy cannot occur where a victim is so intoxicated as to be completely unconscious at the time.” Despite the fact that this decision meant that the defendant would go unpunished, the court stood by its reading of the law, saying "we will not, in order to justify prosecution of a person for an offense, enlarge a statute beyond the fair meaning of its language.” Though the decision was unpublished—ensuring that it cannot be cited as precedent—and Oklahoma legislators have already begun the process of amending state laws to fix this loophole, the decision in this case clearly illustrates the gray areas that continue to exist in many state sexual assault laws that will allow perpetrators to escape conviction.
- The result: The decision by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals—to affirm the dismissal of charges of forcible oral sodomybecause the state’s law does not include intoxication or unconsciousness as required elements of the crime—sparked frustration and alarm that such a loophole could exist.
Sylvester Porter was convicted of two counts of sodomy in the first degree by a Missouri trial court. The conviction was based largely on the testimony of the child he had allegedly abused. Porter tried to appeal his conviction by arguing that the testimony of the victim was contradictory and inconsistent, as the young victim had changed her story several times.
Porter invoked the “corroboration rule,” which says that in order to result in a conviction, the testimony of a victim of a sex crime needed to be corroborated by other evidence in cases where the testimony on its own is contradictory or doubtful. Often criticized as an outdated, discriminatory rule, as it only applied to the testimony of victims of sex crimes, many states have eliminated the “corroboration rule.” With this case, the Missouri Supreme Court saw an opportunity to do so and, as a result, its ruling sustained the conviction, while also eliminating the corroboration rule doctrine in the state of Missouri. However, similar rules for certain sex crimes are still on the books in places like Ohio, New York, and Texas.
- The result: With this decision, the Missouri Supreme Court abolished the “corroboration rule,” which required contradictory or doubtful testimony to be corroborated in order for a sexual assault conviction to be upheld.
Mitchell v. Cedar Rapids, Iowa Supreme Court
Mitchell v. Cedar Rapids Cmty. Sch. Dist., 832 N.W.2d 689 (Iowa 2013).
In 2007, a 14-year-old Iowa high school student with a mental disability left class early to hang out with a 19-year-old classmate she considered a friend. The classmate took her to a garage and sexually assaulted her. During the assault, a friend of the 19-year-old shot her repeatedly with a BB-gun.
The victim’s mother sued the school district, arguing the high school failed to adequately supervise her daughter, failed to notify anyone of her daughter’s absence, failed to take immediate action, and failed to provide security to prevent students from leaving campus grounds unsupervised.
In a 5-2 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the victim’s mother, stating that the Cedar Rapids School District could and should have been more diligent in their supervision of the victim. This decision holds Iowa school districts accountable for crimes committed against their students, even if these crimes occur off campus and after school hours.
- The result: This ruling held a school responsible for a crime committed against a student off campus and after school hours. As campus sexual violence continues to be in the spotlight, this ruling could influence how colleges and universities handle crimes committed off campus.