Maryland Lawmakers Say Its Rape Laws Need To Change

Maryland lawmakers are considering a range of bills, in response to a 2016 BuzzFeed News investigation into one of the state's largest police departments.

The rules for how Maryland handles rape allegations may soon undergo important changes. Three bills being considered by the state's legislature all seek to make it easier for people who have been raped to get their case investigated and prosecuted. The proposed legislation comes in response to a BuzzFeed News investigation into one of the state's largest police departments, which routinely dismissed rape allegations as "unfounded" without thoroughly investigating them.

Three different proposals have already been heard since the state’s legislative session began in January. One would state that an incident can be characterized as rape even if victims don’t physically resist their assailants; another would require outside audits of all police departments that classify rape allegations as unfounded at a rate more than 5 percentage points higher than the national average; a third would expand statewide police training standards for sexual assault cases.

“In Maryland we seem to have a disproportionate number of cases classified as unfounded,” said Del. Pamela Queen, a lawmaker pushing for the bills requiring audits and statewide training.

Baltimore County has already revised a number of the policies detailed in the BuzzFeed News article. Sex crimes detectives will now interview both victims and suspects in every rape case. And police will no longer have the authority to label cases as unfounded. Prosecutors will make those decisions instead.

But Baltimore County officials said in some cases the state’s rape statute itself hamstrung their investigations. The law says that for an incident to qualify as rape the assailant must use “force or the threat of force.” In cases reviewed by BuzzFeed News, some rape investigations were shut down because officers felt that the victim didn’t fight back hard enough. In one case, the officer wrote that the victim “did not offer any physical resistance to the alleged assault as required by MD case law.”

Maryland’s Court of Appeals wrote in 2010 that additional physical violence is not needed for unwanted sex to be considered rape. A new bill proposed by two Baltimore County lawmakers, Sen. Delores Kelley and Del. Kathleen Dumais, would spell that out, codifying that victims need not physically resist for the crime of rape to occur.

The state senate heard testimony on Kelley’s version of the bill on Feb. 8. Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney for Baltimore County, testified in support, saying that the way the law is currently written has made it very difficult to secure a rape conviction. “It shouldn’t be a ‘no means I must fight back’ test,” said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, another supporter of the bill. “It should be ‘no means no.’”

Some members of the senate committee on judicial proceedings expressed ambivalence about whether the bill is warranted. “We’re trying to think this one through, honestly,” Robert Cassilly, Republican from Harford County, told fellow lawmakers. “We’re not opposed, we’re just — it’s an intellectual challenge.”

Del. Queen, a Democrat from Montgomery County, filed the bill demanding audits of all police departments with high rates of unfounded cases. After reading the BuzzFeed News article about Baltimore County, she said she looked at police departments around the state and became worried that the problem was more widespread. Queen also proposed the bill that would expand statewide training standards for police regarding sexual assault cases.

Finally, another Montgomery County lawmaker, Democrat David Moon, proposed a tweak to the state’s public records law. Government agencies that reject a request of public records would have to explain why they could not just redact any confidential elements and hand over the rest. Moon filed the bill because of concerns over Montgomery County’s response to BuzzFeed News’ public records request for rape reports. Unlike Baltimore County, which redacted personal information and disclosed the remainder of the reports, Montgomery County initially declined to provide documents at all.

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