Will New York’s Bill A6540 Change How Sexual Assaults Are Prosecuted? | #tinder | #pof | #match | #sextrafficking


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A new law introduced by New York state lawmakers and backed by three of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers takes aim at the way the criminal justice system deals with the issue of consent.

Unveiled on April 6, 2021 by New York Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, Bill A6540 proposes adding a legal definition of the word “consent” to the state’s entire criminal code. Under the bill, consent would be defined as “freely given, knowledgeable and informed agreement.”

A similar version of the bill was introduced in the New York Senate on April 15, 2021 by State Sen. James Sanders Jr.

The word “consent” presently appears in New York’s penal code 162 times. It arises in a variety of criminal laws, including those that deal with sexual assault, privacy, theft, elder abuse and others. The word appears most frequently within Article 130, the section covering sex crimes, appearing 49 times in total. Nowhere in the state’s criminal code is consent explicitly defined.

Adding this definition would clear up any confusion around what consent actually means, making it easier for juries to decide cases where the existence of consent (or lack thereof) is a central issue, supporters of the bill argue.

Speaking at a press conference alongside Seawright were Tarale Wulff and Dawn Dunning, two women who testified against Harvey Weinstein at his criminal rape trial in New York. They noted that when the jury asked Judge James Burke to provide a definition of consent, he told the jury to “use your common sense.”

Wulff, a model and actor, said that going into the trial she “didn’t know there wasn’t a true definition of consent in our laws.” Wulff testified that Weinstein sexually assaulted her inside his Manhattan apartment in 2005.

“By applying consent to the general law, this bill makes it clear that the same consent that protects your property protects your body,” Wulff added.

Dawn Dunning, a creative director and model who testified that Weinstein sexually assaulted her in 2004, said that the proposed legislation is “about creating social progress for the future.”

“Bill A6540 enables New York State to prosecute sexual offense consistently, providing equal protection to all and making sexual assault crimes easier to prosecute and report,” said Dunning.

Former actress Jessica Mann, whose testimony led to Weinstein’s conviction of third-degree rape, has also been working with Seawright’s office to pass Bill A6540. In her first media appearance since Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in state prison, Mann said, “whether someone’s innocent, whether someone’s guilty, whether I’m relying on a jury, a judge should be able to properly define that.”

“Where do we go post-Me Too? A world that defines consent,” Mann added.

A Patchwork of Consent Laws

Each state’s sexual assault laws define consent differently, making some sexual assault cases more difficult to prosecute than others.

In many states, the law only lays out instances where the absence of consent exists when it comes to sexual assault: when someone is forced to submit to sexual activity, for instance, or when the individual is incapacitated due to intoxication or disability. The age of consent also varies by state, ranging from 16 to 18 years old.

According to data compiled by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, only 11 states (California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia require some form of affirmative consent in sexual assault cases. In other words, consent does not merely end when someone says “no” or “stop”—it must be clearly given through words or actions.

In California, for example, consent is defined as “positive cooperation in act or attitude pursuant to an exercise of free will.” The law adds that the individual must act willingly and have “act freely and voluntarily and have knowledge of the nature of the act or transaction involved.”

Other state legislatures are increasingly considering whether a definition of consent should be on their books. On May 14, 2021, Vermont’s senate passed H. 183, a sexual assault bill that defines consent as “affirmative, unambiguous and voluntary” agreement.

Another bill introduced in the Alaska legislature in February, House Bill 5, aims to strengthen the state’s sexual abuse laws, including by defining consent as “freely given, reversible agreement specific to the conduct at issue.” Under the bill’s current language, “freely given” agreement means that the act was “positively expressed by word or action.”

By contrast, Bill A6540 proposes a bold step that would be the first of its kind in the U.S.: applying a single definition of consent to all crimes.

Joyce Short, an author and founder of Consent Awareness Network who has been working with Seawright’s office on the legislation, believes that standardizing the definition of consent in New York’s penal code is necessary to protect victims of a slew of crimes where consent is at issue. This includes laws surrounding domestic violence, sex trafficking, revenge porn, cyber fraud, theft, larceny, kidnapping and others. Short also believes that passage of the consent bill in New York will inspire other state legislatures to adopt similar measures.

The New York bill, which has four co-sponsors, is currently being reviewed in committee and has not yet been scheduled for consideration on the House floor.


Disclosure: Douglas Wigdor provided pro bono legal counsel to Tarale Wulff before and during Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial in New York.



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