BOISE — Idaho lawmakers listened to more than an hour of testimony Thursday about whether they should allow sexual assault survivors to seek protection orders against abusers.
The House Judiciary, Rules, and Administration Committee heard from survivors of sexual assault, advocates, lawyers and law enforcement. The committee will reconvene and vote Monday on a bill that would change victims’ ability to obtain the orders.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, pitched the bill Thursday by first making clear that it would not affect a person’s ability to own firearms. It is meant only to give victims of sexual assault the ability to request protection.
Under current Idaho law, a victim of a sexual assault that went unreported would not be eligible for a protection order if they aren’t in a relationship with the abuser. The only exception is if a criminal case has been filed, in which case a judge may put a no-contact order in place.
Annie Hightower, director of law and policy for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, told lawmakers that it takes an average of 85 days for a criminal charge to be filed in a sexual assault case. That’s from the date of the assault to the date of the arrest.
In the meantime, those victims cannot ask a judge for a protection order meant to keep the alleged perpetrator from attempting to contact them.
Wintrow also noted that in many sexual assault cases, criminal charges are never filed because the abuse does not get reported.
If her bill were to pass, a victim could request a civil protection order and would be entitled to a hearing within 14 days. At the hearing, the victim would tell his or her story to a judge. The accused person also would be allowed to present evidence. A judge would decide whether there is enough evidence for a person to be granted a temporary protection order due to immediate and present danger.
In many sexual assault cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim but they are not in a domestic relationship — meaning the attacker is not a current or former spouse, or a dating partner. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) says that 8 out 10 rapes are committed by a person known to the victim, and 39 percent are an “acquaintance.”
Wintrow offered the example of a casual date, or even a first date. If a woman is sexually assaulted on a date but not in an ongoing, established relationship with that person, she would not be able to seek a protection order under current Idaho law.
Aleshea Boals, a victim witness coordinator for the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office, spoke to the committee about how victims of sexual assault and their parents are often “shocked” when they learn that they are not eligible for protection while an investigation is ongoing.
Boals spoke candidly about the experience of having her 13-year-old sister be sexually assaulted by a neighbor. In that scenario, her sister would not have been eligible for a protection order. At the time, she said, the family moved her sister out of state while waiting for an arrest.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said he supports the bill because it eases a victim’s fear of running into a suspect while law enforcement does its work.
“Let the judge make the decision,” Donahue said. “But give that person a little bit of peace of mind.”
Other advocates testified about how victims are often terrified of doing day-to-day activities because they fear their abuser may approach them.
Scott Smith, executive director for the Bingham Crisis Center, testified in favor of the bill. He said a protection order could help victims know that they can call law enforcement if an accused abuser tries to contact them. Violating a protection order is punishable as a misdemeanor.
“Ultimately, it is just a piece of paper,” Smith said. “But that piece of paper gives them the sense that they are not alone.”
Committee members asked more questions about how the accused would be affected than they did about the rights of victims.
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, asked about cases in which someone makes a false claim of rape, and wondered whether a protection order in that case would be on the accused person’s record.
Ada County Sheriff’s Office chief legal adviser Terry Derden explained that it would not be on a permanent record.
Scott also asked the bill’s sponsor, “If sexual assault is a criminal act, why wouldn’t they want to tell a police officer?”
Wintrow explained that victims process assault differently, and other times they fear how law enforcement might react.
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds, and three out of four of those assaults won’t be reported to police.
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, wanted to know whether an accuser could be responsible for a person’s legal fees if a false claim is made. Derden said that if a person makes a false report and submits it to a judge as evidence, the reporting party could be charged with perjury. In that scenario, the falsely accused could sue the accuser.
Only two people offered testimony in opposition to the bill, both questioning whether it would strip accused people of their right to due process.
Civil protection orders that domestic violence victims currently request in Idaho are filed under seal. The court records are not public and the hearings are not public.