Sexual Assault Victims: How to protect your rights in court
Sexual assault is a rampant problem in the US, affecting many, and occurring in a variety if everyday settings and situations. One in three women, and one in six men have endured some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime in the US. While women are the more common targets – statistically, one in five women will be a victim of rape on average, versus one in seventy-one men – no one should face this type of abuse. The effects of sexual assault are usually lifelong, including fear, trauma, and a fear of intimacy. Sexual assault is not limited to rape – it is defined as any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. Due to this broad definition, victims may face doubt and confusion about whether their situation qualifies as sexual assault.
If you have been the victim of sexual assault, you need to understand your rights, and be able to protect yourself in court. While a common crime, sexual assault cases often have lots of ambiguity and “her word against his” dynamics. This is fueled by both the rapid changes in sexual assault legislation in the last few decades, as well as the fact that most sexual assaults are committed by intimate partners or acquaintances
What rights do victims of sexual assaults have?
While state laws and procedures can vary from state to state, victims of crimes have the following rights nationally:
- The right to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect by law enforcement and court staff
- The right to be informed about all developments in the investigation related to your case
- The right to be heard and participate fully in the criminal justice process
- The right to timely disposition of the case
- The right to apply for compensation
It is recommended that you research your state’s laws about sexual assault to understand your rights on a deeper and more specific level.
Reporting a Sexual Assault and Filing Charges
There are three main avenues to reporting a sexual assault:
- Calling 911 - If you are in danger or an acute situation, call 911. Emergency services will respond quickly and you will have the option of being taken to a medical facility and, if applicable, having access to a rape kit that collects physical evidence of the sexual assault. Physical evidence is highly important in sexual assault cases to prevent a “he said, she said” situation.
- Contacting the local police department. You can always call the direct line of your local police station or visit the station in person to file a police report of the assault. If you are on a college campus you may also be able to contact campus-based law enforcement.
- Visit a medical center. If you have injuries resulting from sexual assault, go to a medical center and tell the nurse or doctor treating you that you need to report the crime, and request a sexual assault forensic exam. Most hospitals or larger clinics will have internal procedures on examining sexual assault victims and helping them report the crime.
In many cases, sexual assault victims are not sure they want to report the crime when it initially happens. For this reason, the law does not require you to report or file charges in order to receive a rape kit. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 has made it easier for someone to have a “Jane Doe rape kit,” where they are given a code to identify themselves if they choose to report later.
Reporting a sexual assault involves a law enforcement officer documenting the case with a written report. A tracking number gets assigned to the crime. The officer can meet you at any location you select. Try to be as clear and specific with the information you provide, though it is ok to say you do not remember specific details, as that happens a lot when victims are traumatized or in shock. If you choose to press charges, the police department will file criminal charges with the appropriate local court on your behalf. If you choose to file a civil court claim, you will usually need to hire an attorney to represent you and guide you through the civil case proceedings.
Preparing for Court and Protecting Your Rights
One of the key preparations for going to court is deciding whether you will testify against your attacker. This is a tough and personal decision, and the police and / or your lawyer will advise you about what is best for the case. Many victims have a hard time testifying, and cases can progress without victim testimony, as well as with it. If you decide to testify, the district attorney or your attorney will prepare you with what to expect and the types of questions you are likely to receive. Other preparations include identifying and reaching out to witnesses, and writing a sworn affidavit.
To protect your rights, know as much as possible about the laws pertaining to your state and the specifics of your case. Even if you do not need legal representation, you can hire a lawyer to consult with to access this information. Always be honest and thorough in your responses. Review all court documents filed on your behalf and read everything thoroughly before you sign it. Remember that while speaking up for yourself and your rights is hard, and often frightening, your rights are important, and asserting them will help other victims.