The #MeToo movement has energized the state Legislature on issues related to sexual assault, even as it has struggled to handle allegations against its own members. But this session has also been a test of just how much lawmakers' positions have shifted.
Washington lawmakers say the momentum of the #MeToo movement has made it likely they’ll pass a number of bills long pushed by sexual-assault survivors and their advocates.
The past few years were disappointing for those who supported eliminating the statute of limitations, or time limit for bringing criminal charges, for felony sex offenses. But a bill that would do that — at least for some offenses — is quickly making its way through the Legislature.
Also gaining traction are efforts to change the definition of third-degree rape to focus on whether there was consent, instead of whether a victim said no or resisted; allow survivors to get sexual-assault protection orders without having to prove fear of future harm; and protect isolated workers from sexual assault and harassment.
The #MeToo movement has energized the state Legislature on issues related to sexual assault, even as it has struggled to handle allegations against its own members. But this session has also been a test of just how much lawmakers’ positions have shifted.
“We’ve been gaining momentum, but there’s kind of a learning curve for the Legislature to understand trauma and survivors,” said Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who is the prime sponsor on multiple House bills addressing sexual assault.
On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would eliminate or extend the statute of limitations for sex offenses and change the definition of third-degree rape. Both have bipartisan support in the House and are backed by the state’s associations of prosecutors and sheriffs and police chiefs.
Under current law for felony sex offenses, survivors generally have three years after the crime to pursue legal action. But that changes depending on the specific crime, survivor’s age and when it was reported to police. If survivors report within a year, some offenses can be prosecuted up to 10 years after the crime. And if the survivor was a minor when the crime occurred, they have until their 30th birthday.
For the crime of third-degree rape, survivors have three years no matter when they report. And while current law defines the crime as rape without consent, it also requires that the survivor clearly communicated that lack of consent, such as by saying no or resisting.
The laws are difficult to navigate and out of date with what’s now known about trauma, said Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. They don’t reflect how survivors may freeze up during an assault and take time to come forward.
“It comes out of limited understanding of sexual assault and beliefs we know now are just not accurate,” Stone said. “We have a pretty archaic process. This is an important time for Washington to get with the rest of the country.”
Washington has been criticized for this by national advocacy organization RAINN, or Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, especially for the statute of limitations depending on whether a survivor reported in a certain period of time.
According to the advocacy group, at least seven states have completely eliminated the statute of limitations for felony sex offenses: Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. Other states have partially eliminated the statute of limitations, including California, which abolished it for most felony sex offenses in 2016.
Lisa Flotlin, a 29-year-old from the Seattle area, has testified on behalf the bill. Flotlin said a high-school teacher began grooming her when she was 16 and pressured her into sexual acts.
Flotlin said it took her years to realize what happened and to overcome shame and self-blame. She reported the teacher to police at the age of 25. But because she didn’t file a police report within a year of the abuse, her window to bring charges had run out.
“Coming to that realization that because of an arbitrary timestamp, he would never be held accountable for what happened was purely devastating,” she said.
Defense attorneys are opposed to the bill. Gordon Hill, director of criminal practice and policy for the King County Department of Public Defense, said as time goes on, it becomes harder for accused people to find witnesses and present their alibi. It also means they may have to defend themselves against memories or evidence that are decades old, he said. Washington also already has exceptions to the statute of limitations for DNA evidence, he said.
But proponents argue that advances in technology can allow for evidence to be preserved, and that prosecutors won’t be any more likely to take on cases if there isn’t enough evidence.
“There’s nothing worse than having to tell a victim that regardless of the merits of the case and what we can uncover in an investigation, we’re past the date,” said Ben Santos, chair of the King County Prosecutor’s Special Assault Unit. “We never want that to be the reason.”
The bill before lawmakers would eliminate the time limit for most victims who were children when the crime occurred and extend it for those who were adults, regardless of when a police report was filed. For the crimes of first- and second-degree rape and indecent liberties, it would be extended to 20 years. For third-degree rape and incest, it would be 10 years. The changes wouldn’t apply retroactively.
While supporters have cheered the bill’s progress this year, it’s not as far-reaching as some had hoped.
For Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, the issue is personal. Griffey said his wife was sexually abused as a child by her stepfather. By the time she worked up the courage to report the abuse, there were only days before the statute of limitations ran out, he said.
Griffey has pushed to eliminate the statute of limitations for all survivors of felony sex offenses, not just those who were children at the time, which passed the House overwhelmingly two years in a row. But the bill never got through the Senate, where it got as far as passing out of the law and justice committee after being amended to only apply to victims of child molestation and rape.
The chair of that committee, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said limiting the change to cases with child victims is appropriate. He joined Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, in sponsoring her Senate bill to do this.
“As a general matter, we have statutes of limitations for all crimes in this state but murder,” Pedersen said. “After hundreds of years of law, this is a new thing for us. I think we need to make change slowly. We can see how it works out.”
Dhingra, an attorney with the King County Prosecutor’s Office for nearly 19 years, said the bill was designed to balance getting lawmakers on board and protecting the most vulnerable victims.
“I’m cognizant about the pain and triggering that happens when survivors’ hopes get raised and when it feels like your testimony falls on deaf ears,” Griffey said. “I’m trying to give them a little piece of what they’re trying to get.”