REGION — A new California state law providing amnesty for victims and witnesses in felony sexual assault cases testifying to using or possessing illegal drugs appears to be the first-of-its-kind nationwide.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1927, authored by Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas), providing immunity for victims and witnesses of sexual assault from the repercussions of illegal alcohol or drug use occurring at the time of the alleged assault.
The bill sailed through the legislature without a single vote against it and will be enacted on Jan. 1, 2021.
District Attorney Summer Stephan and Boerner Horvath, along with victim-advocate groups, began work on the bill in 2019.
“There is so much underreporting that happens, there’s so much self-blame and so much shame, so I think this bill is a land-mark bill because it takes away a level of that blame on the victim,” Stephan said. “I don’t know of any other state that has a law this.”
According to Boerner Horvath, the rate of sexual assault and rape victims is 1.4 per 1,000 residents, but only 0.4 per 1,000 actually report a crime. Many of those victims and witnesses were afraid they will be prosecuted because they were using a substance illegally.
For example, many high school students don’t come forward because they were drinking alcohol at a party. Instead of facing charges, those cases go unreported and the suspected perpetrator walks free.
“A very big issue for our DA was about ensuring that sexual assault victims get justice from the law,” Boerner Horvath said. “The statistics are very, very clear that they don’t come forward. They don’t people do not come forward … if people are using drugs or drinking underage.”
She said it also removes the fear from “predatory” litigation for the victims or witnesses who committed a crime while an assault was occurring. Boerner Horvath said if those hurdles are preventing reporting, then it was obvious those should be removed so investigations and prosecutions of the alleged assaulter can move forward.
Boerner Horvath also cited a study from the Bureau of Justice (DOJ) showing 80% of sexual assaults cases involving college students and 67% of non-college aged individuals go unreported. She said the bill was also needed after the University of California system instituted an amnesty policy in 2019.
According to a 2018 report from the FBI, there were 15,000 reported sexual assault cases in California.
“I think anything we can do to remove those barriers for survivors of sexual assault, the better,” Boerner Horvath said.
Stephan said many sexual assault and trafficking cases involve alcohol or drugs, which are provided by the perpetrator. For example, restaurant owner Daniel Dorado in La Jolla was prosecuted for assaulting eight women through spiked drinks and then assaulting or raping them.
Stephan said college girls are often fed drinks and become unconscious, which is later used against them by perpetrators. This law will allow victims and witnesses to come forward without fear of prosecution.