A bill nearing a final vote in the state Senate allows judges to grant protection from abuse orders to sexual assault victims in civil cases.
Sexual assault victims can receive a protection order only in criminal court. But many cases are not prosecuted because the burden of proof is too high or there are problems with evidence, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County.
Advocates say the measure would primarily benefit college students who become victims because many remain on campus with their assailants.
“We often find that victims of sexual assault in college — the most vulnerable group statistically, in terms of victimization — end up leaving the college and not finishing their education because of the harassment and stalking of the perpetrator,” said Diane Moyer, legal director at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
Lawmakers likely will consider the bill when the Senate reconvenes on June 3.
The legislation gained bipartisan support with 24 co-sponsors. If passed, the bill would go to the House, where it did not move beyond the Judiciary Committee in the last session.
Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Jill Sinatra said the legislation raises concerns because it dilutes the responsibility to provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the alleged attacker committed a crime.
Though the consequences of a restraining order are less severe than those of a sexual assault conviction, labeling someone as a sexual predator carries a heavy stigma, she noted.
“You’re basically punishing somebody for a crime without meeting the criminal burden of proof,” she said.
The bill puts sexual assault victims on equal footing with those of domestic violence, who can apply for a protection order regardless of whether they pursue criminal charges, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project. Many domestic violence cases don’t go to trial, even though judges grant restraining orders, she said.
“Victims of sexual assault are placed in difficult, fearful, and potentially dangerous circumstances if their assailant remains in or returns to the community,” Greenleaf wrote in a memorandum on the bill. “These victims should be offered the same measure of protection already in existence for victims of domestic violence.”
Though the legislation likely would prompt only a few filings from victims, it could greatly impact those who need protection, Moyer said. For a sexual assault victim on a college campus, this might mean providing housing separate from the alleged perpetrator, she said.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association supports the legislation because it could help victims and give courts another tool to provide protection, said Richard Long, the group’s executive director.