Monday, June 20, 2016

Legal Definition of Rape May Be Expanded in California

Most people in the U.S. were shocked by the outcome of the infamous Stanford sexual assault case. The case has brought to the forefront questions about disparate sentencing for white people versus black people, about the legality of the sentence that was handed down and about whether the rape law of the state should be broadened to encompass more than sexual intercourse.

Factual background of the sexual assault case

A young woman attended a fraternity party with her sister at Stanford. She drank alcohol while at the party, and at some point in time, she left. Two young men from Sweden who were bicycling then witnessed Brock Turner, then an athlete at the university, sexually touching the woman who was unconscious while both were lying on the ground behind a dumpster. The men confronted Turner, who attempted to flee but was stopped and held by the Swedish men for the police. Turner was charged with sexual assault for penetrating the woman with his fingers and for inserting debris and pine needles into her vagina.

The sentence and backlash

Brock Turner was convicted at trial on multiple counts. Between all of the counts, Turner faced up to 14 years, and the prosecutor requested that the judge sentence him to six years. Instead, the judge sentenced Turner to 6 months in jail, substantially less than the statutory minimum of 2 years for a sexual assault. Public outrage following the sentence has been swift, with many people across the nation calling for the judge to be recalled. While the sentence may be shocking, it is not an illegal one. In California, judges are allowed to sentence defendants to less than the statutory minimums in downward departures. Many people have pointed to much harsher sentences handed down to black defendants who were charged with similar crimes, stating they believe that Turner received the light sentence he did because he is white. 

California's rape and sexual assault statutes and sentence ranges

Another major issue the case demonstrates is an issue with California's rape and sexual assault statutes. Rape is defined under California Penal Code 261-269. In order to qualify as a rape, an offense must involve sexual intercourse. Turner could not be charged with rape under the state law because he did not have sexual intercourse with his victim, but he instead penetrated her with debris and with his fingers.

Turner was charged with sexual battery, which is also known as sexual assault in the state. Under California Penal Code 243.4, a sexual battery may be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony offense. In Turner's case, his crime was egregious enough to warrant felony charges.

A single sexual assault count carries a potential sentence ranging from a minimum of 2 to a maximum of 4 years in prison. A rape charge, on the other hand, carries a potential sentence ranging from 3 to 8 years. Besides being upset about the judge's downward departure, many people are also questioning why Turner didn't face the potential for more prison time. The reason is because the definition of rape only includes sexual intercourse and is thus quite narrow.

How the legislature may react

It is possible that the legislature may react to public sentiment by broadening the definition of rape to include a penetration of any sort when the victim hasn't consented. If that broader definition had been in place when Turner was convicted, he could have faced substantially more time in prison. 

Importance of Seeking Legal Help After A Sexual Assault or Rape

If you or your loved one has been the victim of a rape or sexual assault, you have the right to file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator. Even if the person is already facing criminal charges, the law recognizes that victims of such crimes deserve to be compensated. The state allows parallel prosecutions in both criminal and civil court for the same offense. Even if the rapist is successful in his or her criminal case, it is still possible for the victims to prevail in their civil case. This is because the standard of proof for civil cases is to prove the case by a preponderance of the evidence. By contrast, the burden placed on prosecutors in criminal matters is to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt, a far stricter standard. You may want to schedule a consultation with a personal injury attorney to learn more about your rights in your case.