Assembly Bill 1599 (AB 1599), a peace officer transparency bill introduced in January 2020, could close a vital loophole that kept sexual assault allegations off the public record. The bill passed the Assembly with a 63-2 vote in January and has moved to the Senate, where it is expected to pass by a wide margin sometime this summer. You can keep an eye on this legislation here. In the meantime, this article will discuss who the bill pertains to, why it was proposed, and ultimately what the passage of AB 1599 could mean for pending cases of sexual battery in California.
What is Considered Sexual Battery in California?
By California law, sexual battery occurs when a person:
- Acts with the intent to cause a harmful or offensive contact with an intimate part of another, and a sexually offensive contact with that person directly or indirectly results.
- Acts with the intent to cause a harmful or offensive contact with another by use of his or her intimate part, and a sexually offensive contact with that person directly or indirectly results.
- Acts to cause an imminent apprehension of the conduct described in paragraph (1) or (2), and a sexually offensive contact with that person directly or indirectly results.
A person who commits sexual battery upon another is liable to that person for damages, including, but not limited to, general damages, special damages, and punitive damages.
What Could AB 1599 Mean for Cases of Sexual Battery?
AB 1599 expands Senate Bill 1421, legislation authored by Nancy Skinner which went into effect January 1, 2019. The law allows the public access to police investigation records of violent incidents allegedly committed by the police, which have been shrouded in secrecy since 1968. However, officers who resigned prior to the conclusion of the investigation are able to “maintain their privacy” and keep files sealed.
“We passed a landmark police transparency measure in 2018, but a glaring loophole lets bad actors who commit sexual assault under color of law keep records hidden,” admits Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham. “The public deserves access to investigative records into sexual assault under color of law under tight parameters. AB 1599 will bring transparency to government and help restore the public trust.”
If passed, AB 1599 would close the loophole and work to restore trust in the process. As Cunningham explained: “California’s peace officers have a very difficult job. As a former prosecutor, I know that the vast majority of them do their job with dignity and honor. However, sunshine is the best disinfectant and the only way to restore trust. Bad actors should not be able to exploit a loophole to evade responsibility.”
What is a Peace Officer in California?
The term “peace officer” is often mistaken for “police officer.” While a police officer may be considered a peace officer as well, the definition of a peace officer encompasses so much more in the State of California. The list of persons who are considered peace officers is codified in Sections 830 through 831.7 of the California Penal Code and includes:
- state fire marshals
- attorney generals and their investigators or inspectors
- college and university police department officers
- correctional facility personnel
- highway patrol officers
- governor-commissioned railroad police officers
- police and law enforcement officers
- San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District Police Department members (BART)
Peace officers may carry firearms with special permission and have the power to arrest. They don’t need a warrant to arrest you if they believe there is “probable cause” and can be immune to civil liability if they believe they are acting in good faith at the time, even if the arrest turns out to be false. Penal Code § 148 states that it is “unlawful to resist, delay, or obstruct a peace officer in the course of the officer’s duties.”
What Led to the Introduction of AB 1599?
AB 1599 was inspired by the alleged sexual assault involving a Paso Robles police officer.
According to reports, a police sergeant sexually assaulted a woman after responding to her home for a hang-up 9-1-1 call in 2017. Later, he returned to the woman’s house in civilian clothes to assault her again. DNA evidence linked the officer to the woman’s garage where one incident was said to have taken place. On another occasion, the officer was believed to follow the woman home from a restaurant, enter her bedroom, and attempt another assault. The woman claimed he threatened to have CPS remove her two children from her custody if she told anyone about what happened.
In another case, the same officer found another victim while canvassing the same neighborhood. This woman admitted to engaging in a consensual affair with him. However, the sexual relations only occurred while he was on duty—often in his patrol car. While she never felt forced or threatened, she did admit feeling “pressured” and “guilted,” as though he were abusing his position of power as a police officer. The woman said she felt “safe” when she was with him, but later feared retaliation after she confronted. GPS and cell phone data from the woman’s phone and witness statements corroborated her accounts of the affair.
A homeless woman who had been arrested came forward as the officer’s third victim. She admits she was “propositioned” by the officer and asked to flash her breasts during an arrest in 2015 to “make this go away.” She said the officer did “similar things” to her that the other allegations included but declined to provide details because she didn’t want the officer to get into trouble.
Delving deeper into the officer’s history, investigators found rumors of an inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old police explorer as his cause for dismissal from the first job. Then, while assigned to a vehicle theft task force in 2009, the officer fatally shot an unarmed man following a physical confrontation upon suspicion that the man was tampering with vehicles. The officer was placed on paid administrative leave from May through August 2018, while the sexual assault allegations investigation continued.
Despite a detective working the case finding a dozen witnesses, DNA evidence, and GPS data to corroborate the accounts of sexual misconduct, county District Attorney Dan Dow said his office “didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the accused. The officer resigned from the department one month into the investigation, thus blocking reporters or the public from obtaining personnel information in the criminal cases on which he’s worked. The first victim has contacted a civil attorney to explore her legal options.
Seeking Justice for Sexual Battery in California by a Peace Officer
Reporting sexual battery can be intimidating, no matter who the perpetrator is—but especially when the accused wears a uniform. Many survivors fear the officer assigned to investigate their claim of sexual battery is a colleague or friend of the accused. If you fear retaliation, consider reaching out to a civil attorney who can aid in your fight for justice.
Peace officers are not above the law. The individual perpetrators, as well as the departments for which they work, can be held liable in civil court for damages suffered as a result of sexual battery. Even if your case didn’t stand in criminal court, you can still seek monetary compensation for your suffering, the release of records, sheriff department changes, and other sanctions through civil court. In civil court, you need only prove that your case is 51% or more likely to have happened, based on a preponderance of the evidence.
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