Federal and State Courts Address Sexual Violence
RAINN keeps a close eye on court cases that may impact how perpetrators are prosecuted, how victims access support, and how sexual violence can be prevented. Below are summaries of recent federal and state cases that influence RAINN’s public policy work.
Elonis v. United States
13-983, Anthony Douglas Elonis v. United States. U.S. Supreme Court. Decided June 1, 2015.
This case marked the first time that the Supreme Court heard a case considering the limits of free speech on social media. The question at hand: when is online harassment a threat, and when is it free speech?
Anthony Elonis was originally convicted for posting threats on Facebook about raping and murdering his estranged wife, as well as threats about harming law enforcement officers and students in a kindergarten class. His wife testified that she interpreted the posts as threats, but Elonis claimed that his writing was an artistic coping mechanism for his depression. The National Center for Victims of Crime filed a brief in support of the government’s case against Elonis, saying that “victims of stalking are financially, emotionally, and socially burdened by the crime regardless of the subjective intent of the speaker.” This case raised the question of where to draw the line on freedom of speech when that speech causes another individual to fear for their own safety.
In the final ruling, the Supreme Court found that proof of intent was required to consider the posts a true threat. In Elonis’s case, the Court did not find proof that he intended to follow through on his words, despite being graphic and causing fear.
- The result: This ruling makes it more difficult to convict someone who harasses another person online because it allows the harasser to argue they never intended to truly threaten their victim.
Kaley v. United States
12-464, Kaley v. United States. U.S. Supreme Court. Docketed March 18, 2013.
The Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA) created the Crime Victims Fund (the “Fund”), which directs hundreds of millions of dollars each year to victims and victim service providers. The Fund is supported through fines paid by perpetrators who are found guilty of a crime, as part of their sentence. These fines help support state victim compensation programs.
During a trial, the courts will often freeze the alleged perpetrator’s assets, meaning the perpetrator and their family cannot access any of their financial accounts. Asset freezing prevents the defendant from depleting their wealth before the jury hands over a verdict. If assets are not frozen, the defendant is free to spend or reallocate their assets until there is nothing left to contribute to the Fund in the event of a guilty verdict.
Kaley challenged the constitutionality of the court to freeze the defendant’s assets during the trial. The Supreme Court determined that asset-freezing is constitutional, as long as a grand jury has already found probable cause that the crime was committed.
- The result: This ruling prevents a perpetrator from intentionally "going broke" before a final verdict is delivered, ensuring that, if found guilty, the perpetrator will be able to contribute to the Crime Victims Fund.
Paroline v. United States
12-8561, Doyle Randall Paroline v. United States, et al. U.S. Supreme Court. Docketed February 5, 2013.
This Supreme Court case addressed a victim’s ability to obtain compensation for crimes committed against them as a child. A federal law, the Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA), allows eligible survivors of sexual violence to obtain financial compensation for harm, referred to as “restitution,” from the abuser. The case determined whether someone who possesses child pornography causes direct harm to the depicted child, or if only those who create the pornography actually victimize the child.
Doyle Randall Paroline pled guilty to possessing 150 to 300 images of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Two images were of a child named Amy, whose father and uncle sexually abused her and then put pictures displaying this abuse online, where Mr. Paroline obtained them.
As an adult, Amy sought restitution from Mr. Paroline, citing federal mandatory restitution laws as the grounds for recovering restitution from Mr. Paroline even though he was neither the originator of the pictures nor the direct abuser. The Supreme Court held that people in possession of child pornography could be made to pay restitution, but only in proportion to the harm they directly caused the survivor.
In response to this decision, RAINN worked with Senators Hatch (R-UT) and Schumer (D-NY) and other supporters on the Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Restitution Act, which ensures that victims like Amy will be able to request the financial help to which they have a right, and a need.
- The result: This ruling made it easier for victims of child pornography to request and obtain financial restitution from those who are found guilty of possessing these illegal images.
DNA Collection from Arrestees
Maryland v. King
Maryland v. King, 133 S. Ct. 1958 U.S. 2013.
In the landmark case Maryland v. King, described by Justice Alito as “perhaps the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades,” the Supreme Court ruled that collecting DNA evidence is just like fingerprinting—a valid procedure that law enforcement can perform on individuals arrested for violent crimes.
Following his arrest for assault in 2009, Alonzo King had his cheek swabbed—a process characterized by Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion as a “minor intrusion.” A crime lab analyzed the swab, and the resulting DNA profile was entered in the federal database, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). King’s DNA was linked to a six-year-old crime scene, and he was subsequently convicted for the rape of a 53-year-old woman at gunpoint.
When King appealed his conviction, a Maryland court overturned it, ensuring that King would be held responsible for the rape committed years prior. Maryland is one of 28 states, along with the federal government, that collect DNA after someone is arrested on felony charges, essentially treating DNA evidence as a more sophisticated and accurate version of fingerprints. The remaining states wait until a conviction to collect DNA from perpetrators.
- The result: This ruling made it easier for law enforcement to solve open cases by expanding opportunities to collect DNA evidence from perpetrators of violent crimes.
Iowa Court Holds Schools May be Accountable for Off-Campus Sexual Assault
Mitchell v. Cedar Rapids, Iowa Supreme Court
Mitchell v. Cedar Rapids Cmty. Sch. Dist., 832 N.W.2d 689 (Iowa 2013).
In 2007, a 14-year-old Iowa high school student with a mental disability left class early to hang out with a 19-year-old classmate she considered a friend. The classmate took her to a garage and sexually assaulted her. During the assault, a friend of the 19-year-old shot her repeatedly with a BB-gun.
The victim’s mother sued the school district, arguing the high school failed to adequately supervise her daughter, failed to notify anyone of her daughter’s absence, failed to take immediate action, and failed to provide security to prevent students from leaving campus grounds unsupervised.
In a 5-2 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the victim’s mother, stating that the Cedar Rapids School District could and should have been more diligent in their supervision of the victim. This decision holds Iowa school districts accountable for crimes committed against their students, even if these crimes occur off campus and after school hours.
- The result: This ruling held a school responsible for a crime committed against a student off campus and after school hours. As campus sexual violence continues to be in the spotlight, this ruling could influence how colleges and universities handle crimes committed off campus.