Editor's note: This article contains graphic depictions of chemical assault/drugging.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law on Thursday to strengthen protections for children who have been sexually abused and sexual assault laws.
The N.C. General Assembly unanimously passed the bill at the end of October, and it will go into effect on Dec. 1.
The bill makes failure to report crimes against juveniles a misdemeanor, expands the statute of limitations for misdemeanor crimes involving abuse against children and protects children online from high-risk sex offenders.
The bill also covers many loopholes previously found in state law. For example, until the law was passed, North Carolina was the only state in the U.S. in which individuals could not withdraw consent to sex after it had already been given. Part six of the bill, which focuses on modernizing sexual assault laws, holds adults who are dating a parent responsible if the adult abuses their child, prevents sexual assailants from taking advantage of people in vulnerable mental states and makes the act of drugging someone’s drink illegal.
“A big part of changing the culture around sexual assault is making sure that we are attacking it from all different angles and all different sides,” said N.C. Rep. Chaz Beasley, D-District 92, representing Mecklenburg County. “What we put together is a bill where we can’t take pieces out in isolation because all of these loopholes are a part of us addressing issues that are happening as we speak.”
He said part six of the bill was largely inspired by the story of UNC junior Leah McGuirk, whose drink was drugged last year at the bar Rooftop 210 at EpiCentre in Charlotte.
“Without her story, I don’t know if we would have found out when we did, that the law did need to change, and needed to change quickly,” Beasley said.
McGuirk said after being at the bar only 20 to 30 minutes, she started to feel dizzy, her vision began to go out and she heard a crackling sound in her ears. She said her eyes rolled back into her head, her body was convulsing and she felt like she was having a seizure.
But McGuirk said when she tried to go to the police to tell her story, she was told because she had not been sexually assaulted, they could not file her case under current N.C. law. The law regarding drugging substances only referred to edible substances such as children’s Halloween candy, not drinks.
After hearing her story, Beasley reached out to McGuirk and wrote legislation addressing the loophole.
“I hope that it emboldens survivors to not be silent,” McGuirk said. “So often people stay silent when they’ve been assaulted because of the stigma around it. The more people that speak up the more shame is lifted, and more proactive change can be made in society.”
Skye David, staff attorney at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, emphasized the impact of this bill for sexual assault victims.
“The bill has so many different parts, it really affects survivors across the lifespan,” she said. “Almost all perpetrators are repeat offenders, so if we can stop people once or twice, it will protect all survivors that may have been victims of someone.”
Michael Dolce, of counsel at the Cohen Milstein law firm and leader of the firm’s sexual abuse, sex trafficking and domestic abuse team, said while the bill is definitely a step in the right direction, there is still much that can be done regarding sexual assault legislation in the state.
“As much as this bill takes a significant step forward, a very important step forward, I would encourage legislators in North Carolina and a number of other states to repeal all their statutes of limitations for sex crimes,” he said. “Every state that I’m aware of, there is no statute of limitations for murder. As it relates to sex crimes, it ought to be the same.”
Dolce also said the bill's provision that directs K-12 schools to develop training programs for faculty on sex-trafficking and sexual assault prevention should be extended to college campuses.
“If you look at data across the board, the most dangerous place for any adults, female in particular, to be in the U.S. as it relates to sexual assault, is on a college campus, particularly as a first-year college student,” Dolce said. “I think that colleges and universities not just in North Carolina but across the country need to create an atmosphere where reporting (sexual assault) becomes something that is comfortable.”
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