Laws go into effect to help victims of sexual assault
No truly means no under Maryland law as of Sunday. Acts that most would consider rape will be called just that. And evidence of sexual assault will have to be kept for 20 years.
Those three measures are among hundreds of bills that take effect Oct. 1 after being passed by the General Assembly this year in a landmark session for advocates of sexual assault victims.
Under one of the bills, Maryland law will now explicitly state that a victim of a sex assault does not have to physically resist for the attack to be prosecuted as a crime. Another says that coerced oral or anal sex is as much a rape as forced intercourse.
A third sets a statewide standard for law enforcement to preserve “rape kits,” ending a policy under which some jurisdictions discarded them after a few months.
“We definitely improved Maryland’s laws for survivors of sexual assault on a number of different levels,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Other measures that will become law include a ban on fracking, a prohibition on the sale of state lottery tickets over the internet and a ground-breaking ban on so-called “price-gouging” on generic drugs.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will see two of his top initiatives become law: a tightening of legislative ethics laws in response to a series of scandals and an overhaul of the way the state procures goods and services.
Another administration bill will allow the Motor Vehicle Administration to automatically expunge the driving records of Marylanders whose license suspensions were not related to safety violations.
The administration estimated about 600,000 Marylanders would benefit, including those whose licenses were suspended over such matters as falling behind on child support. The legislation reflects a broader trend of removing minor offenses from people’s records that can block them from getting work.
The sexual assault package also reflects changing times and attitudes.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, who sponsored the bill on physical resistance, said the reception was far different in 2017 than when the measure was introduced in 2003 and 2004 — first by then-Del. Anthony G. Brown and then by Dumais.
“We called it ‘No Means No’ and we couldn’t get it out of committee,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. “This year that bill sailed through like it was the best idea that ever was and no resistance whatsoever.”
Dumais, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the existing law doesn’t explicitly require physical resistance to bring a rape charge. But she said some police and prosecutors have been reluctant to pursue a case unless a woman could show she put up a fight.
That put the law at odds with the warnings women are given about the dangers of fighting back against a sex assault.
“We often tell women, in general, if you are being attacked, get through it,” she said. With the new law in place, Dumais said she hopes police and prosecutors will show a new awareness that they have to listen to victims and not drop cases just because there was no physical resistance.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who chairs the Senate committee that approved the bill, said the change will be especially important when cases reach the jury room.
“The instructions that were given on this issue were muddled,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. He said they will now be crystal clear.
The new law expanding the definition of rape doesn’t change the criminal penalties or requirements for registering as a sexual offender, Jordan said. But she said it is a matter of “respect for survivors” — including men in some cases.
Under current law, such acts as forced oral or anal intercourse were classified as sexual assaults. Jordan said it has been “an emotional blow” for victims to learn the law didn’t consider their experiences to be rape.
“These are rapists, and they should be labeled as such,” Jordan said.
Zirkin, who sponsored the Senate bill on preservation of rape kits, said his committee heard testimony that there was no uniform statewide standard for handling such evidence.
The legislation followed an investigation by The Baltimore Sun that found police departments had discarded hundreds of rape kits, which typically include such evidence as the assailant’s bodily fluids. It described the case of a Baltimore County woman who was sexually assaulted in 2013 but didn’t decide to seek prosecution of the crime until 2016. By then, the evidence had been destroyed.
Zirkin and Jordan said it’s not unusual for victims who initially were unwilling to go through a trial to be ready to do so years later.
“We should keep open all roads for someone to prosecute a case,” Zirkin said.
Zirkin was also the Senate sponsor of the legislation banning fracking in Maryland — a measure adopted after Hogan became a convert to the cause.
Maryland became the third state to ban fracking, but the only one with natural gas reserves to enact a ban by law, Zirkin said. Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process in which chemicals are injected into natural gas pockets to extract the fuel.
“Based on all research and a growing body of evidence, we protected not just water supply and clean air but human health,” Zirkin said. He pointed to evidence that connects fracking with increased incidences of cancer and fertility problems.
Maryland also jumped ahead of other states when it adopted legislation allowing the attorney general to take generic drug companies to court if he believes they have raised prices to unconscionable levels. The measure will become law without Hogan’s signature, but there is a question about how long it will remain in force.
The legislation faced a challenge in federal court by an industry group that claims it is unconstitutionally vague and violates the U.S. Constitution’s clause giving Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Afederal judge refused Friday to block the law from taking effect.
Vincent DeMarco, the measure’s chief advocate, welcomed the ruling.
“A lot of other states are looking at what we’re doing,” said DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative.