New legal protections for sexual assault victims in N.H. take effect this week

By Ethan Dewitt
Concord Monitor
September 26, 2020

[with video]

New Hampshire’s protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence were widely expanded this week, after a broad package of reforms pushed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu this summer took effect.

House Bill 705, known as the “Crime Victims’ Rights Enhancement Act of 2020,” ushered in significant changes. The statute of limitations for civil actions in sexual assault cases is now eliminated; the rights of victims during court proceedings have been increased; and those who commit sexual assaults against people with disabilities who are unable to consent – or 13- to-16-year-olds – may no longer use marriage as an excuse, among other changes.

The provisions took effect Sept. 18, 60 days after Sununu signed the bill in July.

Advocates for domestic and sexual violence survivors applauded the developments – among the first major updates to the state’s statutes on victims’ rights in decades.

“Prior to this legislation, statutes in New Hampshire limited survivors of sexual assault to seek justice within an arbitrary timeframe,” said Pamela Keilig, public policy specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, in an emailed statement. “With the passage of this bill, that is no longer the case.”

HB 705 scraps the civil statute of limitations in sexual assault cases, allowing victims lifelong flexibility to pursue civil cases to get damages.

Before Sept 18, a victim of a sexual assault that occurred when they were under 18 had only 12 years to pursue a lawsuit. A victim over 18 years old had only three years. Now, those windows are eliminated.

“By eliminating the civil statute of limitations in sexual assault cases, survivors can now come forward and seek restitution when they are ready,” Keilig said. “This is critical, especially knowing that the average lifetime cost of sexual abuse for a survivor is nearly $200,000.”

The new law also eliminates the marital exemption for felonious sexual assaults and misdemeanor sexual assaults.

For decades, those who committed sexual assault against a disabled spouse without the ability to consent could claim a loophole: marriage. Now, even if the assailant is married to the victim, if the victim’s disability prohibits consent to be freely given, sexual relations counts as assault under the statute.

The same loophole has been eliminated for children; no longer can abusers who sexually assault 13- to 16-year -olds be exempted from charges if they are married to them.

HB 705 broadens eligibility for payment from the Victim’s Assistance Program to include victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse. That means those victims who have sustained personal injury as a result of any felony or misdemeanor may apply to the state fund for assistance. Previously that fund was not available to childhood victims of sexual assault.

The law expands the maximum amount each claimant can get to $40,000, up from $30,000.

“It just tries to provide a little bit of assistance for people so those who have already been traumatized by crime don’t get retraumatized by a system or a society that doesn’t actually care that they’ve been hurt,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, the Hampton Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill.

And it includes a suite of new protections for victims in court proceedings, brought in by expanding the existing victims’ rights statutes.

For instance, police officers, courts and corrections officers must now protect the victim’s safety in their interactions. They must allow the victim the right to relocate for their own safety, if possible.

And the court system must accommodate a number of other procedural needs from victims, according to the law. Chief among them: the right for the victim to be informed of all court proceedings involving their perpetrator, from court appearances to sentencing requests to parole hearings.

Under the new change, the victim must have the right to be heard through written or oral testimony at any of those proceedings as well.

The new statute also requires prosecutors to inform a victim’s employer “of the necessity of the victim’s cooperation and testimony in a court proceeding” if that cooperation might necessitate the victim miss work.

Some of those services may have been provided by judicial bodies anyway. But none were laid out as requirements in law until this month.

The new statutory changes also direct the Department of Justice’s Office of Victim/Witness Assistance to draft up a new set of professional guidelines that reflect the expanded rights.

For Cushing, expanding victim’s rights has a personal significance.

Thirty years ago, Cushing’s father was murdered by a gunman, a tragedy that set Cushing on a path toward criminal justice reform.

But even after the killer in that case was convicted, the headaches weren’t over for the Cushing family, he said in an interview Friday. At one point in 2002, Cushing’s father’s killer was pushing for parole. The parole request jumped from court to court – from the New Hampshire Supreme Court to the U.S. District Court in Concord to the federal Court of Appeals in Boston.

The parole request was ultimately quashed, but Cushing never knew it was even happening, and never had a chance to attend any hearings. He had to read about the outcome in his morning newspaper.

Cushing later sued against the Attorney General’s office for the right to get that hearing – and won.

“But it shouldn’t take someone like me having to go finesse something and get before a judge to get the rights vindicated,” he said.

The new law, Cushing said, provides “the ability for victims to have access to the information from victims rights and services in a way that’s acceptable.”


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