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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Put sexual assault orders on equal footing

A bill to align sexual assault protection orders with orders related to domestic violence and harassment makes perfect sense, but this is the advocates’ third try. The objections have never been clear.

Last year, the bill passed Senate unanimously, but the bill died quietly in the House when the National Rifle Association reportedly raised last-minute concerns. This year, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing, and nobody signed up to oppose it. The panel passed it on a 12-1 vote, with Rep. Matt Shea voting no.

Sen. Mike Padden, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, has set a hearing on the Senate bill for this morning. He has supported SAPO legislation the past two years.

Sexual assault protection orders (SAPOs) were established to fill a gap not covered by other protection orders. Domestic violence protection orders are limited to victims in a domestic relationship with the perpetrator. But if someone were sexually assaulted by a person they weren’t in a domestic relationship with, they had no recourse in civil courts. They could file criminal charges, but many victims don’t want to go through that ordeal. SAPOs allow them to keep the assailant at a safe distance.

The duration of other protection orders is left to the discretion of judges, but a SAPO carries a two-year limit, at which time the victim must apply for an extension. If the target of the order objects, the victim may have to face the assailant at a hearing all over again. This can be traumatic, and it may cause some people to decline to seek the order in the first place.

SAPOs should be no different than other protection orders, but this will require a change in the law. Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell wrote in a letter to the editor that he supports “the notion that victims of sexual assault should not receive less protection than victims of domestic violence, stalking or harassment.”

To apply for a SAPO, one must be 16 years old. The cases often involve children. In one example conveyed to the editorial board, a girl was sexually assaulted repeatedly by a family member when she was 3 and 4 years old. The assailant moved away but returned some years later. The victim sought and was eventually granted a SAPO when she was 17. Under current law, she may have to revisit her trauma every two years to keep the family member at bay.

Under Substitute HB 1384 and SB 5256, judges could grant a longer order and the burden would shift to the assailant to show why it ought to be modified or lifted. Judges can also remove weapons, just as they can with other protection orders. This reportedly caused some consternation with the NRA last spring. But in 2014, advocacy groups say they worked with the NRA to craft a gun-removal law in connection with protection orders. The current SAPO bills would not alter that law, and gun removal is fairly rare.

Nonetheless, the House bill was recently modified to note the process under which a weapon could be returned. If there are other objections, let’s hear them. It would be unacceptable for this bill to die another quiet death.

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