North Carolina

North Carolina reforms sexual assault laws: ‘We are defining what ‘no’ means.’

A wide-ranging legislative package reforming sexual assault laws unanimously passed both chambers of the NC General Assembly Thursday with two measures closing decades-old legal loopholes on the definition of rape that set North Carolina apart from the rest of the country.

The Senate passed SB 199 with a 49-0 vote Thursday morning. The House voted 108-0 in the afternoon.

The package was hammered out in conference committee in recent weeks and had wide bipartisan support, despite related measures failing in committee in previous sessions of the legislature.

Two of the key measures — revocation of consent and sex with someone who is incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs — closed loopholes in North Carolina due to old court precedents. They were featured in Seeking Conviction, a series examining the prosecution of sexual assault crimes in the state produced in March by Carolina Public Press and a collaboration of 10 statewide media partners, including The News & Observer.

Until Thursday, North Carolina had been the only state in the country where it’s not considered a crime to continue sex with someone after that person revokes consent.

“I’m very much aware of how prosecutors have been handcuffed on this issue,” NC Attorney General Josh Stein said after the bill passed both chambers.

The changes to the consent laws, “are both changes for the good,” he said.

“Our criminal justice system has to do better for victims of sexual assault,” he said.

The legislation also increases the statute of limitations for a child sexual assault victim to sue an assailant; expands the duty of anyone over 18 to report knowledge of a sex crime against a juvenile; requires school personnel training on child sex abuse and sex trafficking; bans online conduct by high-risk sex offenders that endangers children; and prohibits attempts to drug someone’s food or drink.

The measure will become law if signed by Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper’s office has previously indicated he would study it carefully before deciding whether to sign it. A spokesperson for the governor said Thursday that has not changed.

Changing ‘archaic’ law

The bill “brings North Carolina to the 21st century,” Rep. Dennis Riddell, a Republican from Alamance County, said on the floor of the House. “If you were a victim of child abuse, this is for you. If you are an adult victim, this bill is for you.”

After the bill passed, Riddell told Carolina Public Press that North Carolina’s sexual assault laws have been “archaic.”

“Once a person consented, there was no going back,” he said of the loophole regarding consent. “We are defining what ‘no’ means. ‘No’ is not the new ‘yes.’ ”

This is not the first time legislators considered closing the consent loophole. State Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, made his first attempt to change the law in 2015. He has tried several times since then. Many times his bills died without a hearing, including this year.

“Initially there was confusion about how controversial the bill was,” Jackson said. “Eventually they realized what was controversial was not passing it.”

The legislation could have helped people like Leah McGuirk, who was at a bar in Charlotte last year when she felt unwell and collapsed to the floor. She said she suspects her drink had been drugged, and her friends took her to safety. She reported the incident to police but was told it’s not a crime to drug someone’s drink if it is not accompanied by another crime.

“There is a part of me that’s sad, because I know there’s so many victims who won’t be able to take the people who preyed upon them to court,” McGuirk said. “These laws are built on the backs of victims who won’t get their day in court.”

Protecting children

Stein’s office worked on sections of the bill that includes protections for children.

“As a result of this legislation, now our children will be better protected from sexual assault, and online from sex offenders,” he said.

Raleigh resident Katie Trout, who watched from the visitors’ gallery, said she a member of her church preyed upon her when she was 15. She said her perpetrator has already been convicted, but being able to sue would be empowering.

“Until this passed, I had no control or power to hold him more accountable for what happened,” she said.

But Stein said age 28 is “by no means adequate” when it comes to a statute of limitations for child sex abuse lawsuits. He said he intends to try to increase the civil statute of limitations to 40 years old during the next legislative session.

Many North Carolina district attorneys strongly supported several of the measures, saying the loopholes created by precedents interfered with their ability to prosecute some cases.

“There’s just an enormous amount of benefit for all of these things,” said District Attorney Ashley Welch, whose district includes the six southwestern counties of North Carolina. “This would allow us to more aggressively go after someone who engages in non-consensual (activity).”

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