By Erin Cox
Gov. Larry Hogan signed a series of new laws Tuesday designed to make it easier to prosecute rape cases.
The most sweeping is a "no means no" measure that removes a centuries-old requirement that rape victims demonstrate they tried to physically resist their assailants.
In some jurisdictions, sex crime investigators sometimes disregarded rape cases as "unfounded" and not fit for prosecution when victims could not prove they tried to fight off an attacker.
Another new law forbids police from destroying rape kits for at least 20 years, creating a statewide standard to replace what The Baltimore Sun revealed last year is a patchwork of local policies that could hamper prosecution.
A third new law, which like the others takes effect in October, removes the distinction between vaginal rape and other types of sexual assault, a change its proponents say won't alter penalties but helps victims by making the law match people's everyday definition of rape.
And yet another new measure, pushed by the governor, expands the definition of sexual abuse to include child sex traffickers.
"Our focus has been on victims," Hogan said before the bill signing ceremony in Annapolis.
The sexual assault bills were among 211 newly passed laws to receive a final signature from Hogan, a Republican, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats.
In addition to sexual assault bills, Hogan signed a law that would grant a bigger income tax break to an estimated 12,500 retired law enforcement, fire, rescue and emergency personnel who live in the state. The governor this year championed the proposal, which has been pushed by Montgomery County Democratic Del. Sheila Hixson since 2006. The new law will exempt up to $15,000 in retirement income for such "hometown heroes" 55 and older.
The governor also signed a bill that would grant up to $500,000 statewide in tax breaks to small businesses that hire veterans.
The new rape laws follow several high-profile assault cases nationally and a renewed political emphasis on women's rights, particularly among Democrats, advocates said.
"Women are reacting to the larger political climate, and women are watching," said Lisae C. Jordan, director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
She said this year, she was inundated by calls and emails and social medial requests from people volunteering to help.
"They're not content making slow progress over time," Jordan said.
Jordan and retired Judge Barbara Kerr Howewere tapped by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamentz last fall to review three years worth of rape cases ruled "unfounded" after a BuzzFeed News report revealed the agency had a high rate of such cases. The report found Baltimore County investigators routinely set aside rape allegations because victims could not prove they tried to fight off their attacker.
The independent review, released in February, found that none of the 124 "unfounded" cases from 2013-2015 could have been prosecuted under existing law. But about a third could have been prosecuted if Maryland's definition of rape was changed.
Kamenentz, a Democrat mulling a run for governor, promised to change how rape cases are investigated in Baltimore County.
A Baltimore Sun review of public records in December found police across the state left more than 3,500 rape kits untested. Some destroy them after a year if the case is deemed unfounded, though some never do.
Under the new law, such forensic evidence must be kept for at least 20 years, and victims must be notified before they are destroyed.
Speaking broadly, Hogan said in a statement that "making Maryland safer begins with making sure that we have a criminal justice system that holds offenders accountable for their actions and the harm they cause, while also supporting victims and the community in the process of healing."
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby attended the bill signing and said the "no means no" provision is "a major victory for all victims of sexual assault."
"For far too long in Maryland, we've been promoting a sort of rape culture," Mosby said.
The city police department's handling of rape cases was criticized by U.S. Department of Justice investigators in their report last August. Federal authorities said the department "seriously and systematically under-investigates reports of sexual assault."
The consent decree approved by a judge this month addresses way the city handles sexual assault cases.
One of the top priority for sexual assault advocates -- stripping rapists of parental rights to children conceived during the assault -- failed in the final hours of this year's session. But Miller, the Senate president, said Tuesday the measure should be brought up if the General Assembly convenes a special session on other matters.
Maryland is one of 16 states without a law allowing rape victims to terminate the parental rights of their assailants. The bill has failed for nine years in a row as lawmakers disagree on technical legal details about how to strip parental rights from someone who has been accused but not convicted of a rape in criminal court.
In recent years, disagreement has centered on whether the proceedings would be sealed, whether the identities of mother and child would be published, whether the alleged rapist would be entitled to a lawyer and whether anything said in the civil proceeding could be used in a criminal case. The annual legislative session adjourned last week before negotiators had reached agreement.
"It needs to be addressed in the next session or the special session," Miller said.
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