Governor Cooper Ratified Bill to Modernize Sexual Assault Laws in NC

On October 31, 2019, the North Carolina General Assembly ratified Senate Bill 199, which strengthens laws and protections for survivors of sexual violence. This bill is a huge win for survivors, advocates, and allies, and brings NC up to date with the rest of the country in terms of how the law treats survivors. S199 was originally a bill to extend protections for survivors of child sexual abuse, and legislators added elements from other bills to address gaps and loopholes in sexual violence laws to create a singular comprehensive bill. The bill was signed into law by Governor Cooper on Thursday, November 7, 2019, and takes effect on December 1, 2019.

Prior to the adoption of S199, many survivors of sexual violence were unable to pursue their case in the court of law because NC did not classify some forms of sexual violence as illegal. Megan Johnson, the Crisis Unit Supervisor at the Chapel Hill Police Department, expressed her frustration with the law: “Our own law enforcement, they want justice for victims, and sometimes the law isn’t set up in a way that we can find that, and I think that is frustrating for everyone.” Once S199 takes effect, survivors of sexual violence will have legal backing to pursue justice in the legal system in ways they were not able to before.

With the passage of S199, NC will recognize the refusal to heed withdrawal of consent as a crime that can be prosecuted as rape or sexual assault. NC is the last state to legally grant the right to revoke consent, allowing prosecutors to take on cases that previously had no legal backing. The OCRCC recognizes that giving consent is ongoing and persons have the right to revoke consent at any time since the nature of sexual activity can change to become violent, painful, or otherwise unwanted. Due to the diligent efforts of survivors, allies, and advocates, the law will finally protect and give power to individuals who were previously not able to prosecute or seek justice because their experience was not recognized as rape by the law.

S199 includes provisions that modernize sexual assault laws by expanding the definition of mental incapacitation, as it applies to rape and sexual assault. Previously, a person was only considered incapacitated by an act committed against them by another person. S199 updates the language to include any act, meaning that if someone is incapacitated due to voluntary consumption of drugs or alcohol, they will now be able to pursue legal action against the person who committed violence against them. This is a vital change in legislation, since many survivors, particularly college students, were unable to pursue legal action due to voluntary consumption of alcohol. When S199 becomes law, NC will finally recognize what we know to be true: drinking alcohol or consuming illicit drugs is not consent for any sexual activity, and engaging in sexual activity with someone who is incapacitated due to alcohol or drug consumption is sexual assault or rape.

This bill retained the protections it provided to survivors of child sexual abuse and increases prosecutorial options for delayed reports of child sexual abuse. The statute of limitations will be extended to 10 years after a crime for certain misdemeanor offenses related to child sexual abuse. The statute of limitations for civil action will be extended to 10 years after the minor turns 18, to age 28. Extending the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse is extremely important to allow survivors time to process their experiences and feel empowered to speak out. Rushing someone to report can be re-traumatizing, and extending the statute of limitations in both criminal and civil cases grants survivors greater autonomy and choice, and allows them to come forward when they are ready.

S199 contains other provisions that expand the duty to report cases of child sexual abuse, protect children from online predators, and require training for school personnel on the topics of child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

While S199 is certainly a significant win for sexual violence survivors and advocates, it does not mean that NC is done improving protections for survivors. Activists and advocates must continue to push for legislation that protects survivors of sexual violence and provides them with opportunities to pursue justice and healing. H29, the Standing Up for Rape Victims Act, was not among the bills incorporated into S199. This bill would establish processes and protocols to test the untested sexual assault forensic exam kits (rape kits). A report in 2017 found that 15,160 untested kits exist in NC, and H29 would eliminate this backlog and ensure that future kits are tested in a timely manner. Furthermore, increasing funding levels for rape crisis centers across the state would prove to be extremely beneficial to survivors of sexual violence, as many RCCs are underfunded and are struggling to adequately serve an increasing number of help-seekers with limited staff.

We must note that the creation and passage of S199 did not happen in a bubble. Survivors of sexual violence who shared their stories publically or allowed others to advocate on their behalf were instrumental in the ratification of S199. In August, OCRCC’s own Rachel Valentine, Executive Director, Taylor Hamlet, Crisis Response Coordinator, and Abby Cooper, Policy Intern, met with the NC Joint Legislative Women’s Caucus to discuss the need for updated legislation that better protects and supports survivors of sexual violence in our state. The ratification of S199 demonstrates the power of community members speaking up, advocating for survivors, and demanding change.

When willing and able to speak out, the voices of survivors of sexual violence, their loved ones, advocates, and allies are invaluable to the fight against rape culture. Making updates to outdated legislation is crucial to ensure that individuals have the ability to pursue justice and accountability when their basic human rights are violated. When the NC government stands with survivors, we are one step closer to a world free from sexual violence.

Want more information?

Read news articles about the passage of S199 here, here, and here.

Read the official bill summary here.

Read language of the ratified bill here.

Written by Abby Cooper, OCRCC Policy Intern.