Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sexual Assault Victim Protection Gets OK

Legislation sponsored by New Jersey State Senators Nellie Pou and Jennifer Beck to allow sexual assault victims to seek protective orders against their offenders was approved today by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

The bi-partisan bill, S-2686, known as the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act of 2015, would permit victims of nonconsensual sexual contact, sexual penetration, lewdness, or attempts of such acts to apply for a temporary protective order with the Superior Court. This bill would specifically apply to  cases in which the victim does not have a domestic relationship with the perpetrator and if he or she decides not to file a criminal complaint.

“Protecting victims of sexual abuse from their attacker is a matter of urgency, especially for survivors who live in fear of more assaults because of the difficulties that exist for those seeking to file a restraining order,” said Senator Pou (D-Bergen, Passaic). “With this bill, protection would be extended to all residents seeking restraining orders from assailants whether or not there is a pre-existing relationship or whether individuals would like to press charges.  All residents deserve the right to feel safe and this legislation would ensure that no one in need of protection falls through the cracks.”

“Sexual assault survivors who feel that they are in danger of being re-victimized deserve immediate, responsive protection and assistance from the courts,” Senator Beck said (R-Monmouth). “As a former rape crisis advocate, I must say that this issue and the many impacted people cannot be ignored. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of sexual assault survivors know their perpetrator — they are friends, neighbors and colleagues. The same type of interpersonal dynamic exists in domestic violence cases, and restraining orders have served as an important protection for those survivors. All survivors need the opportunity to obtain a protective order.”

The protective order would prohibit an offender from entering a victim’s residence, school or place of employment and could be required to stay away from places where the victim frequently visits, according to the bill. The perpetrator could also not be allowed to have contact or communication with the victim. This includes committing acts of stalking and harassment. Additionally, the court could file an emergency protective order on behalf of the individual without notification to the offender when necessary in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the victim. Also under the bill, the Administrative Office of the Courts will establish and maintain a central, confidential registry of all protective orders and all persons charged with a violation of such orders, which would be available to certain law enforcement and child protection officers.

A person who violates the order would be charged with a criminal offense of the fourth degree, which is punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a maximum of a $10,000 fine. Under the bill, a person convicted of a second or subsequent non-indictable offense would be required to serve a minimum of 30 days in prison.

The legislation also notes that if a victim is under 18 years old,  has a developmental disability, a mental illness or defect that impairs their ability in providing consent, the court would allow a parent or guardian to file an application on their behalf. 

Under the current law, protective orders are issued for individuals who are or were formerly married, living together, in a dating relationship or have a child in common with an offender. In 2007, a law was enacted authorizing the courts to issue restraining orders against individuals charged with a sex offense as a condition to the person’s pre-trial release. The court may then continue to implement this order if the person is found guilty. This bill would allow a victim to seek a restraining order against a perpetrator regardless if criminal charges are filed.

The New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault estimates that roughly 300 sexual assault survivors a year will seek a restraining order if given the opportunity under this bill. Twenty-three states have passed similar laws, including Texas, Montana, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania.

The bill was approved by a vote of 13-0. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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