Judiciary Committee Session Accomplishments

            The first half of the 2021-22 biennium concluded last Friday. Despite legislating remotely, the General Assembly accomplished a great deal. The House Judiciary Committee, on which I serve, had a busy session, moving several important bills through the legislative process, some of which I highlight here.  

            Addressing Sexual Assault in Vermont:  The legislature passed H.183, which revises and clarifies our laws addressing consent to sexual activity, including the impact of alcohol consumption. The law will eliminate confusion as to when consent to sexual activity has not or cannot be given. The bill also creates a Campus Sexual Harm Task Force to confront the high number of sexual assaults that take place on our college campuses.

Eliminating the “Trans Panic Defense”:  In some states, courts have allowed defendants to rely on a “trans panic defense” to have assault charges against them lessened or dismissed altogether. The defense is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction towards the victim.  Act 18 prohibits the use of such a defense in Vermont.

Penalties for Hate-motivated Crimes: Act 34 updates Vermont’s response for crimes motivated by hate, which provides an enhanced penalty that a prosecutor can charge in addition to the underlying crime. To apply the enhancement, the law had provided that a prosecutor must prove that a crime was maliciously motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, service in the U.S. Armed Forces or the National Guard, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived membership in any such group. Act 34 eases the burden for prosecutors by providing that the person need not be maliciously motivated; rather the person need be simply motivated in whole or in part by the victim’s inclusion in one of the protected categories.

Clarifying Police Use of Force: Last year, the legislature enacted Acts 147 and 165 that together provided statutory standards for police use of force, including lethal force. This year, the legislature passed Act 27, which clarified that law enforcement may use chokeholds only when lethal force is justified. Under the law, before use of a chokehold or other deadly force can be justified, its use must be objectively reasonable and necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury and there must be no reasonable alternative to the use of deadly force to prevent death or serious bodily injury. The use of a chokehold must cease as soon as the subject no longer poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.

Mental Health and Criminal Justice:  The legislature passed S.3, which clarifies provisions related to court proceedings in criminal cases that address either the defendant’s sanity at the time the offense was committed or the defendant’s competency to stand trial for the offense.  Under current law, if an individual is found not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial and is a danger to self or others, the person is committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health for treatment.  Current law provides no way for the crime victim to be made aware when the person returns to the community. S.3 closes that gap by creating a system of victim notification in these cases.  In addition, the bill creates a forensic working group to identify gaps in mental health coverage and procedures in Vermont’s criminal justice system and to make recommendations as to whether a new forensic treatment facility is necessary to house individuals who have been committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health.

Punishing Sexual Exploitation of Children: Act 29 makes simulation of sexual conduct with a child illegal. Before Act 29 became law, explicit depictions of sexual exploitation of children were illegal only if physical contact is shown. Material that suggested sexual exploitation, but where the child and adult are inches apart or where the camera angle is such that physical contact is implied but not visible, was not against the law. Act 29 makes such conduct a crime. The Judiciary Committee worked on additional bills that the legislature passed, including Act 26 repealing the statute of limitations for civil actions based on childhood physical abuse and H.87 establishing a classification system for criminal offenses.