Legislation called "Audrie's Law" that would expand California's definition of rape to include the sexual assault of an unconscious or developmentally disabled person cleared a senate committee Tuesday morning, though the teeth of the bill was watered down.
The state Senate Public Safety Committee unanimously supported the measure sought by the family of Audrie Pott, a 15-year-old Saratoga High School who was sexually assaulted while unconscious at a house party in 2012, and later committed suicide.
The Public Safety Committee amended the bill to set a minimum sentence of two years for juveniles who are convicted in juvenile court of raping an unconscious or developmentally disabled person and to allow such cases to be tried in an open courtroom.
Audrie's parents had wanted juveniles to be charged in open, adult court.
"I feel we've made some significant changes here that Audrie would be proud of," Audrie's mother, Sheila Pott said. "I still think there's a lot of work that needs to be done."
The bill stems from what happened to Audrie at a party in 2012. She drank too much and passed out. Later there were photos of her lying unconscious with words scribbled on her body, images that would be shared with others. On her Facebook page, Audrie expressed that her life was ruined and that others knew what happened. She killed herself on Sept. 12 of that year. The three teens involved were sentenced under the juvenile justice system with penalties of 30 to 45 days.
Audrie's father, Lawrence Pott, testified at the hearing, saying that because of social media, his daughter had to relive the rape 1,000 times. Posting the photos made the "rape worse than it ever was."
Audrie’s Law, or SB 838, introduced by Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), would close a statutory loophole that fails to recognize the sexual violation of an unconscious or developmentally disabled victim as forcible rape. It also proposes to change the California Welfare and Institutes code by adding a criminal sentencing enhancement if the offender electronically shares photos or messages regarding the crime to identify, harass, humiliate, or bully the victim.
The bill was written by the Santa Clara County Office of the District Attorney. "The time has come to pull these predatory perpetrators out of the shadows and make the juvenile justice system live up to its promise to protect victims,’’ Deputy District Attorney Chris Arriola said. “By allowing for increased penalties and a public forum for many of these cases everyone can be held accountable."
The amended version of the bill not only would guarantee a mandatory minimum two-year sentence in the juvenile system for youth who rape an unconscious person, but if photos are taken and shared on social media, the offender would face an additional mandatory one year. The bill would also open the juvenile proceedings to the public - a big change from the normally secretive juvenile process.
Audrie's stepmother, Lisa Pott, expressed some disappointment but said the amended bill is better.
"I can't say that we're pleased, this is hard," she said. "But we also feel like we've accomplished something. If we can help people and make changes it gives us some purpose. It helps us grieve, it helps us move forward because it's too difficult to look back."
SB 838 now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will examine its potential fiscal impact. The bill requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to advance to the Governor’s desk.