On Thursday, New York state lawmakers passed a bill to prohibit police officers from having sex with people in custody.
NY Senate Bill S7708 establishes that a person “under arrest, detention, or otherwise in actual custody” is incapable of consenting to sexual contact with a person “who is responsible for effecting the arrest of such person or maintaining such person in detention or actual custody; or knows or reasonably should know, that such person is under such arrest, detention or actual custody.”
According to the bill, state law had previously prohibited sexual contact between corrections and parole officers and people in their custody but had not specifically mentioned police officers.
The bill is in response to a woman’s claims that last September, two NYPD officers arrested her and separated her from her friends, took turns sexually assaulting and raping her in their unmarked police van, and then released her with no arrests or paperwork filed. BuzzFeed reported on the story in depth in early February.
DNA from the victim’s rape kit matched the two cops, who both admitted there had been sexual contact but have maintained it was all consensual. The two cops have been indicted on first-degree rape charges; both have pleaded not guilty and are currently awaiting trial.
This situation ignited a national discussion regarding consent when one party is in custody of the other or when one party holds such power over the other.
More stories alleging law enforcement sexual misconduct have since come out. A New York court officer admitted in February that in October 2016, he told a woman that her boyfriend’s case would get thrown out if she performed a sex act on him. He resigned from his position in February.
BuzzFeed reported yesterday:
In February, BuzzFeed News reported that New York was one of 35 states that do not explicitly deem encounters between cops and those in their custody as sexual assault. In the weeks since, legislators in at least six states have introduced or begun drafting bills to change these statutes.
Of at least 158 law enforcement officers nationwide charged since 2006 with sexual assault, sexual battery, or unlawful sexual contact with somebody under their control, at least 26 have been acquitted or had charges dropped after claiming the encounters were consensual, according to a BuzzFeed News review of a Buffalo News database…
The way sexual assault laws in New York and most other states are currently written, an officer can admit to having sex with a person in their custody and be convicted of no more than a misdemeanor for official misconduct. The specific statutes vary among states: a Texas law classifies sex in custody as an administrative offense, punishable by a maximum two-year prison sentence; in California, the crime is classified as a misdemeanor for a first offender and as a felony for any additional violation; in several other states, sexual assault laws require an accuser to prove that an officer used their authority in an overt effort to coerce. In states without the loophole, sex in custody is deemed an automatic sex crime.
There is no such thing as consensual sex between a law enforcement officer and a person under law enforcement custody. It is beyond unacceptable that police officers would be able to engage in sexual behavior, consensual or not, with people under arrest and even more so while on the job; it is beyond disturbing that police officers could have believed otherwise or would not have realized such behavior constituted severe abuse of power.
Hopefully other states quickly follow New York’s example.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.