We’re Victims’ Rights Advocates, and We Opposed Marsy’s Law

The “Marsy’s Law” campaign arrived in Iowa this year like it has in many other states. This national effort seeks a specific list of constitutional rights for crime victims more expansive than the statutory rights afforded victims in every state. Iowa’s version sought to enshrine existing legal rights to notification, participation, and restitution into our constitution and add rights to safety, privacy, and the right to refuse discovery requests. For now, state legislators resisted the popular appeal of the campaign’s central theme — that crime victims deserve “equal rights” to the accused in criminal proceedings. 

The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault remain unwavering in our support for victims, yet we oppose Marsy’s Law. We represent agencies providing direct services to crime victims before, during, and long after any encounter with the criminal legal system. In addition to offering emergency services, these are the people law enforcement call to assist at a crime scene or at the hospital to support rape victims. Lawyers and judges rely on them to accompany victims in court and explain legal proceedings. They help victims obtain housing, jobs, and access to services and safety.  

We believe this well-intentioned effort promotes the wrong mechanism for advancing victims’ rights. Amending the Iowa Constitution to comport with Marsy’s Law undermines the legal system and strains resources to the range of programs addressing victims’ comprehensive needs. The assertion that victims deserve constitutional rights equal to the accused mischaracterizes how the justice system operates. 

Granting equal constitutional rights to a victim identified at the outset of criminal proceedings threatens due process and diminishes fundamental principles of American justice. It also unfairly prioritizes the needs of victims seeking remedy in criminal court over the vast majorities who do not. Victim needs identified in a statewide survey include housing, transportation, counseling, and healthcare, as well as legal assistance. 

Upholding American ideals of justice respects the common interest. Arrest and prosecution of domestic and sexual violence victims remain a problem here. Often it is unclear who the victim is until a judge or jury sorts things out. Frequently, the presumption of innocence is not experienced by domestic and sexual violence victims, especially those from marginalized communities. Women comprise a larger proportion of the prison population than ever, and most are survivors of violence. 

Victim arrests occur in cases of self-defense or when charged with violating their own protective orders for allowing an abusive partner into the house because they could not keep him from being disruptive outside and feared eviction. When both parties are arrested, victims often plead guilty so they can return more quickly to children or a job. 

Rape victims are commonly threatened with prosecution for false reporting as a tactic to get them to recant their stories. And routinely, biases based on race, gender, or immigration status result in the arrest of victims seeking assistance. Iowa ranks third worst among states for racial disparities in our prisons, and many immigrant and LGBTQ survivors cannot access justice in our legal system. 

Opposing Marsy’s Law does not mean we oppose victims’ rights. The amazing service providers we represent go the distance 24/7 and 365 days a year, helping survivors rebuild their lives. Based on several thousand years of combined experience serving victims, directors of every member program in Iowa publicly urged opposition to Marsy’s Law. 

Constitutional rights for the accused exist to limit the state’s power against individuals when the state seeks to deprive them of life, liberty, and property. The accused have constitutional rights because getting it wrong means we imprison innocent people and an offender remains free to harm others. 

Victims’ rights serve a completely different purpose aimed at ensuring recovery for individuals, not protection against state power. Granting victims constitutional rights equal to the accused in criminal proceedings inappropriately undermines due process by creating conflict between victim and defendant rights. It also exacerbates flagrant inequalities in our criminal legal system. 

The insensitivity victims experience is not a constitutional failing. Victims deserve dignity and respect. They deserve to be notified and heard at criminal proceedings. And they deserve to be informed regarding the status of their offender. These rights and more already exist in Iowa’s legal code, but it takes money and people to ensure access to them. A victim cannot exercise her right to be heard in court without transportation to the courthouse or if she needs a lawyer or is reluctant to participate without someone to help her understand the process. 

Adequate funding for systems and services and better enforcement of our victims’ rights laws can more effectively serve survivors. Instead, Marsy’s Law makes sweeping promises the state cannot keep, claims to fix problems constitutions cannot solve and harms our justice system. 

Survivors deserve better than that. 

Laurie Schipper is the executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Beth Barnhill is the executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the ACLU.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

Now I want my own law too, Leary's Law.

Mister Sterling

Victims already have rights, beginning with the prosecution of those who violate those rights. Apparently, since the final wave of early 90s crime, "victims rights" has been an euphemism for tipping the scales of justice away from the accused.

Anonymous

Yes, a rape victim has the right to be accused of being a whore, of asking for it, of having her entire life brought under a microscope where the courtroom gets to decide if she deserves to be treated like a human being. If they decide she's easy, then whatever he did to her is ok. She's slept with 3 guys, she wanted to be beaten and cut and raped.

Anonymous

In addition to better Civics Education, our high schools do a poor job of educating future voters on how the Judicial Branch court system was desugned to work:

The "precedent" or ruling of a single court case can affect dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other cases within that territory (depending on the level of the court). Even if there was a single jury trial case where there is overwhelming evidence to decide a verdict, not following constitutional due process could harm far more innocent people in the longterm. In other words maybe a cop or prosecutor cheats in one case and maybe that single defendant was guilty, that "precedent" could harm dozens, hundreds or thousands of other cases. One U.S. Supreme Court ruling could affect 330 million Americans (population of the United States).

For example: In rulings like "Terry v. Ohio" in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court rewarded police officers for violating both the letter & spirit of the 4th Amendmend. In 1968 police searched a man and found drugs (although the search was illegal). Maybe it was justice in this one single case, but it harmed millions of Americans since. This single 1968 ruling has since harmed the 4th Amendment rights of millions of Americans since it legalized "preemptive" searches. Today police officers are trolling Facebook performing preemptive searches for non-crimes with no evidence of a past crime. Big cities like NYC and DC were performing preemptive "Stop & Frisk" searches in poor neighborhoods but exempting the richer suburbs from equal treatment. Some federal agencies are trying to "preemtively" record the content of entire phone conservations - like a tape-recorder - then archive those calls for years or decades. They could listen to an actual phine call of your entire conversation from 2008.

Unlike the other two political branches, the Judicial Branch is hierarchical - not democratic. A superior court ruling "dictates" the legal precedent to a lower court. A lower federal district court determines constitutionality for that locality. A federal appeals court determines constitutiinality for a multi-state region, all lower courts are required - by law - to follow that ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court determines constitutionality for the entire United States - every judge, clerk, police officer, prosecutor or any other official is required to follow it.

Most Americans are never involved in real jury trials. Gross fiction of TV police dramas portrays cases of black and white "good guys vs. bad guys" where there is hard evidence and all the cops wear halos every minute of every day. Hollywood really does a diservice to viewers.

Those that created this law probably have the best of intentions, but this legal precedent could harm far more many innocent people than guilty ones.

Derek Logue of ...

Just like Feminism, victim rights' laws think that tipping the scales far into their favor will give them "equality." It is an illogical conclusion.

Anonymous

Yes, we have rights in Iowa code. Sadly, those “rights” fall through the cracks all too often. Even worse, law enforcement often does not recognize Iowa code when interacting with victims of domestic abuse, assault and marital rape. Far too often the systems in place to ensure Iowa code is followed, fails and the ripple effect is horrific for the already traumatized victim or survivor. I speak from experience, the system fails victims over and over and over. If the culture of how we treat victims of crime in Iowa is to change, we must start by changing the constitution. Victims will continue to not report because they don’t trust the system is on their side. A victim bill of rights in our Iowa constitution would be at its core the accountability agencies and law enforcement need and most importantly what it would mean to a victim or victims family, to be “read his or hers rights.” I have a right to be notified, Iowa code failed me. I have a right to be treated with dignity and respect. Iowa code failed me. I have a right to be protected by law enforcement. Iowa code failed me. I should have a right to properly staffed and funded crime labs where dna is processed. Huge fail. Until you navigate your way through the system while at the same time learning how to live with trauma knowing your perpetrator still walks free because they have more right than you... you have no idea. The time is now. Please reconsider your stance on Marsy’s Law for Iowa.

Anonymous

Victims already have rights. No new laws!

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