The old saying about the wheels of justice grinding exceedingly slow could well be applied to lawmaking, as well; particularly when there’s a partisan split between control of the Legislature and the executive branch. But even if slow, some progress is almost inevitable, and this legislative season in New Hampshire, that’s good for the victims of sexual and domestic abuse.
Though his ready and willing veto pen has held up much of what the Democratically controlled Legislature has tried to accomplish during the past two years, Gov. Chris Sununu signed three bills into law Friday and Monday that take major steps toward protecting such victims.
House Bill 705 eliminates the statute of limitations on sexual assault and incest; makes it illegal for a spouse to sexually assault their partner; and promotes awareness regarding sexual abuses on college campuses. It also makes several changes tightening crime victims’ rights laws and banning the retail sale of rape evidence kits, which advocates say could pose health risks, might interfere with victims getting access to free professional care, and likely wouldn’t be admissible in court.
House Bill 1240 closes the so-called “Howie Leung” loophole, and establishes a special marriage officiant license, the fees for which would go toward the state’s domestic violence victims fund.
Leung, a Concord High School teacher, was accused of having inappropriate contact with a student, who was 18. Despite a lengthy investigation, Leung was allowed to continue teaching because of the student’s age and because the actions didn’t meet the definition of assault. HB 1240 makes sexual contact between school employees and students explicitly a felony, including kissing and/or fondling; it also changes the definitions to note it applies to students ages 13 to 18, and that the accused may be charged if they were in a position of authority over the victim and at least four years older.
“When a teacher or a coach engages in sexual contact with a student, that is a gross misuse of power,” noted Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover.
Sununu wrote to the Senate Judicial Committee, urging members “to find the most comprehensive language to close this loophole in our law and ensure that sexual contact by an actor who is in a position of authority over a teen is expressly criminalized — whether or not the actor or the teen claims that the act was consensual.”
It’s a strong step, although we’ve also advocated for more stringent tracking of those found guilty of abuse against students, so they can’t simply move on to find new victims in a similar role.
House Bill 1645 — perhaps better known for banning the use of chokeholds by police — also extends the waiting period for violent offenders to petition for annulment of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense from two years to 10. Sununu signed it Friday.
Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, noted the timing is particularly important as many Granite Staters are holed up due to the COVID pandemic. That puts partners and children at a higher risk, with more domestic tensions and less chance of someone outside the home seeing signs of abuse.
There are a lot of improvements to state law that fell before Sununu’s veto pen; or, conversely, that didn’t make it through the Legislature because Democratic leaders opposed them. But at least this session, members of both parties can say they opted to extend protections to victims of domestic and sexual assault.
That’s no small accomplishment in itself.