A Review of New York’s Proposed Sexual Violence Legislation: Part 2 – Minimum “Sentencing” Requirement

March 11, 2015

By: Laura H. Harshbarger

In this installment of our continuing analysis of the Governor’s “Enough is Enough” proposed sexual violence legislation, we turn to the minimum penalties for offenders that the bill would require. The bill, if passed as written, would mandate that colleges and universities include the following provision in their sexual misconduct policy: “For students found responsible for committing sexual assault, the available sanctions shall be either immediate suspension with additional requirements or expulsion.” Thus, a college and university would be required by law to suspend or expel any student found by a preponderance of the evidence to have committed “sexual assault”. Note the word “shall”: the legislation would allow absolutely no institutional discretion, no matter the facts or circumstances of the “sexual assault”. This leads to the obvious question, “What conduct is deemed a ‘sexual assault’ for purposes of this mandatory minimum penalty?” The bill does not define the term “sexual assault”, and “sexual assault” is not defined under New York’s penal code. Assuming that the bill intends to track VAWA’s definition of “sexual assault”, the following would be included: rape (which is any nonconsensual penetration), fondling (which is any nonconsensual sexual touching of private body parts), statutory rape and incest. Recall that this bill requires “affirmative consent”, meaning that all parties must have actively expressed consent to the specific sexual act on this specific occasion. Silence is not consent, and consent on prior occasions alone is not enough. Consider the following scenario. A male student and a female student have been “hooking up” on each of the past five Saturday nights. They kiss, and he starts to touch her breasts, and she removes her shirt. On the sixth Saturday, the kissing and touching occur but she does not remove her shirt. After a few minutes, he stops, and they go their separate ways. The woman brings a complaint, saying that she did not want her breasts touched on this recent Saturday night. She did not tell him during the interaction how she felt, but she also did not say that the touching was okay or actively participate (e.g., she did not remove her shirt). Assuming that it is determined that she did not affirmatively consent to the touching on that night, the college would have no choice except to – at a minimum – suspend the male student and impose undefined “additional requirements” on him. (The college would have the discretion to determine the length of the suspension, but the college would have no discretion about whether to suspend.) If there is any campus situation laden with critical nuance, it is a sexual interaction between two young adults. Administrators would likely agree that many, and perhaps even most, acts of nonconsensual sexual activity should result in suspension or expulsion. But there may be circumstances where a suspension ‘plus’ or expulsion seems too severe a penalty in view of all of the relevant circumstances of the case. The dilemma is heightened by the absence of a definition of sexual assault in the legislation, as it is not clear whether the bill intends to cover any nonconsensual sexual contact. If so, a single kiss without affirmative consent may constitute a sexual assault that requires a suspension. Perhaps there is leeway in how an institution defines sexual assault for the purpose of imposing a mandatory minimum penalty, but that is not clear from the statute. The possibility of this result may have an ironic unintended consequence. The mandatory minimum penalty no doubt stems from the perception that institutions have been too lenient on offenders. However, in a close case, an investigator or disciplinary decision making body, realizing that a finding of responsibility will trigger an automatic penalty of at least suspension and feeling that such penalty is unwarranted under the circumstances, may decline to find responsibility at all. The proposed legislation’s goal of ensuring that serious offenses are punished seriously is laudable. However, the legislation’s use of a blunt instrument approach to sanctioning risks overshooting the mark and deprives institutions of the ability to consider the unique circumstances of specific cases. Despite the good intentions behind the legislation, the mandatory minimum penalty provision is language that we believe could benefit from modification, or at least clarification and definition, to better serve its purpose.