Bill to clarify sexual assault stirs surprising debate

By Michael A. Kruse
Capital West News

SALT LAKE CITY — A woman sat in tears as she explained to state lawmakers how she was sexually assaulted during her freshman year in college.

Kim Fischer, a reporter with KTVX Channel 4 News in Utah, talked about her own traumatic experience when, after spending the night at a friend’s house, she awoke to a man sexually assaulting her.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, has sponsored a bill to clarify language in the current law making it clear that someone who does understand what’s happening to them (e.g., unconsciousness, incapacity), cannot consent to sexual interactions.

Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City

Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City

“The only thing I could think to do was pretend to sleep and say my boyfriend’s name,” said Fischer, who said her simple actions stopped the man from going further. While she never told anyone, three weeks ago she recounted the events after being encouraged to tell her story before the House Judiciary Committee as they discussed HB74.

For several years now, Romero has been working on sexual assault bills, she said, and the purpose of this bill is to clean up the law and close a loophole that alleged criminals have been using. Donna Kelly, of the Utah Prosecution Council sat in as an expert witness to answer questions about the bill.

The bill is needed because current state law requires proof that a victim expressed non-consent, Kelly said, adding that the bill’s intent is to protect the most vulnerable people from attacks.

“How can a victim express lack of consent if they’re unaware what’s happening?” she said. Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, had reservations that the bill removed the state’s burden to prove consent. “Is there any scenario in which a person could have sex with an unconscious person that would not constitute to rape?”

Committee Chair LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, echoed Greene’s concerns about the bill. Christensen wondered whether the current law may be sufficient, suggesting that striking the consent requirement from the law may impose a blanket policy rather than approaching circumstances on a case by case basis.

Finally, Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, emphasized the importance of ensuring that the state still has proof beyond a reasonable doubt that consent was not given. Snow expressed his belief the burden of proof should take care of any of the fringe cases that others were bringing up.

“When an individual has sex with a victim that the individual knows is unconscious or unaware that the act is occurring, that’s rape. Period. End of story.” said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who insisted that the bill should be approved in order to make clear that the legislative body is not going to tolerate rape.

Despite some impassioned debate on the matter, the committee gave a favorable recommendation to the bill with an 11-0 vote. The bill will now head to the House floor for further consideration.

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