Crime & Courts

With new law, Alaska is closing gaps for prosecuting sex crimes and ‘no will mean no,’ officials say

Bill Signing

A bill signed into Alaska law Thursday will make it possible for the state to prosecute sexual assault on the basis of a victim saying “no,” instead of requiring physical force or threats for such assaults to be considered crimes.

The bill — which will also reduce the maximum amount of time allowed for rape kit processing and reclassify revenge porn cases as domestic violence crimes to offer better protection for victims — was one of three pieces of public safety legislation that Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed into law. Other bills signed during Thursday’s event at the Alaska State Crime Lab in Anchorage will also standardize procedures for missing persons reports and require that policies and procedures for Alaska State Troopers are posted online.

The comprehensive sex-crimes bill brought forth by Rep. Sara Rasmussen, an Anchorage Republican, will expand the state’s definition of rape and allow for more prosecution, she said.

Consent was previously not included in Alaska’s sex crime statues, meaning that if a victim said “no” but physical force or threat was not used — which can happen when a victim responds to trauma by freezing or becoming physically unable to act — it was not a crime, said Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore.

“That’s a very frequent thing,” Skidmore said about seeing a freezing response from victims. “That’s one of the things our prosecutors have found over the years as they’ve had to talk with victims and explain why we couldn’t prosecute a case, even when there’s that freezing or that fear aspect to it. We’ve seen it over and over, but we couldn’t do anything about it because the law wouldn’t allow us to do that.”

“HB 325 updates Alaska sexual assault laws to ensure the conduct the vast majority of citizens think should be a crime is now a crime,” Attorney General Treg Taylor said. “ ‘No’ will mean no in Alaska. When a person communicates ‘no,’ that’s the end of it.”

Bill Signing

The bill has been in the works for years and Rep. Geran Tarr, a Democrat who represents Anchorage, said she worked closely with Rasmussen. She said they repeatedly found out that consent was a problem for victims of sexual assault. It’s necessary to consider consent in prosecution, they said — especially in Alaska, which has some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the country.

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It was a problem that consent wasn’t included in the statutory definition of sex assault crimes, Skidmore said, but one that was not unique to Alaska.

Skidmore said Alaska is on the front end of states making improvements to outdated consent statutes. The model penal code, which acts as a model for legislatures nationwide, was updated recently to reflect that consent should be included in the law, he said.

The changes will go into effect in January, he said, so that there is time to train prosecutors and law enforcement.

Rasmussen’s bill encompassed several other proposals that likely would not have otherwise been addressed during the session because of time restraints, Tarr said.

Bill Signing

The bill will shorten the amount of time allowed by law for the processing of rape kits. In the last few years, the state has begun to address an enormous backlog in testing that resulted in thousands of rape kits sitting on the shelves for decades. The new law will require that tests are processed within six months to prevent future backlogs, Rasmussen said.

The bill also reclassifies cases commonly referred to as revenge porn — where intimate images are posted online without the subject’s consent. That was already considered a crime, but will now be classified as domestic violence to offer better protection for victims, Rasmussen said.

“A woman or victim couldn’t previously petition the court for a restraining order when that occurred,” she said. “So now that will qualify as a condition for a restraining order.”

For many in attendance at the bill signing Thursday, the issues were personal.

Rasmussen’s 4-year-old daughter, Charlotte, walked up to hold her mother’s hand after she finished speaking. For Rasmussen, that meant everything.

“I wake up every day and I see her, and that’s my motivating, driving factor for why I did it,” she said.

Bill Signing

A number of victims also spoke at the signing. Blaze Bell, who is a survivor of sexual assault and has advocated for victims through her involvement with various nonprofits, said the bills will “increase victim rights, fix long outdated consent laws and create a path toward justice.”

“I have worked so hard over the past 20 years to identify and fight for my rights and the rights of other victims in our state. It’s been an enlightening, exhausting and unfair journey,” she said. “But I’m here today filled with hope as I see that changes are being made.”

Two other bills were signed into law Thursday afternoon as well.

Bill Signing

One will put into statute that Alaska State Troopers must post policies and procedures online, something the agency currently does. State Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, an Anchorage Democrat, said this will ensure that practice continues in the future, which improves transparency with the public.

Another bill will create time requirements for law enforcement to add missing persons reports into specific databases when the cases involve people under 21 years old. The age will include college populations.

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Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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