SALT LAKE CITY — Utah legislators have authorized the Attorney General’s Office to conduct fresh investigations of rape and other first-degree felony cases upon petition by victims dissatisfied with lack of action by local authorities.
The Utah Senate passed and sent to the governor Wednesday House Bill 281, sponsored by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, aimed at prodding further action on sexual assault cases.
A related measure, House Bill 15, focuses on police investigations. It sets up a process in which a victim, or a relative of a missing or murdered person, can obtain a second look by the local police agency. This process also could end up with a second investigation by the Attorney General’s Office.
HB 15, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, passed the Senate and was sent to the governor two weeks ago.
Lisonbee proposed her bill after becoming frustrated by reports of sexual assault victims feeling abandoned by police and prosecutors.
County prosecutors’ standard of filing charges only on cases they think have a reasonable likelihood of ending in a conviction “tends to underserve victims,” Lisonbee said in a Senate committee hearing March 4.
And the Attorney General’s Office under current law intervenes in local cases only when a county attorney has committed an abuse of discretion.
The bill, she said, now “allows the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute when investigative officers have failed to act.”
She said one victim whose case was dropped told her, “What really bothers me is knowing that my attacker is still out there.”
Lisonbee said the roadblocks occur both in police departments and county attorneys’ offices.
Reed Richards, a deputy Weber County attorney, said the bill “gives a wonderful opportunity for victims to get a second look.”
Responding to a question in the committee hearing, Richards said many cases may be reviewed by state attorneys under the bill, but “I don’t think they’ll overturn a lot of them.”
Rob Van Dyke, Kane County attorney, said the county attorneys association welcomes the bill.
“With the #MeToo movement and other issues, there are more and more victims that are coming out,” he said. “We’re very cognizant of the needs of victims.”
Van Dyke said he’s reviewing three cases that are a decade old or more.
“For victims to have a second independent office to review (a case) I think is a great idea,” he said.
Van Dyke said the bill in practice probably will result in the Attorney General’s Office reviewing a case and contacting the local attorneys “to ask them to change their mind.”
So the local prosecutor usually would end up pursuing the case in court, he said.
That prompted Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, to ask what would happen if the local and state prosecutors still disagreed on whether to pursue a case.
“Going through a jury trial and hearing ‘not guilty’ can be about as damaging as anything for a victim,” Hillyard said.
Van Dyke said the Attorney General’s Office still would have authority to file charges itself.