DES MOINES — Proposals to write victims’ rights into the Iowa Constitution moved forward in the House and Senate on Wednesday, but not without opposition from civil liberties groups and victims’ advocates.
Supporters of Marsy’s Law are again this year calling for a constitutional amendment to demonstrate the importance of protecting victims’ rights. The measure was sought last year but did not make it to a floor vote.
“When you elevate something to a constitutional right you elevate it to the highest law in the land,” Maria Verdin, a retired Arizona trial judge and prosecutor, told lawmakers. “When you want someone to take your rights seriously, you say ‘I have a constitutional right.’”
It also “puts pressure on us as legislators to follow through with those concerns,” added Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, who is leading the effort in the House again this year.
Advocates for sexual and domestic assault survivors remain unconvinced. It’s not that victims don’t have rights — they exist in Iowa Code, the advocates told the lawmakers in House and Senate subcommittees — but law enforcement, prosecutors and judges don’t always follow the law.
“Until our system changes, this is just a feel good moment,” said Kerri True-Funk of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “This is just draining the court system of more money and neglecting the real lives of Iowans who the system — not the victims’ rights system but the court system, the criminal legal system — is not currently serving.”
Senate Joint Resolution 8 and House Joint Resolution 11 would make it a state constitutional right for people directly harmed during a crime to request and receive notification when the perpetrator is released from jail or prison. The initiatives also list victims’ rights to be told about and to attend public proceedings involving the criminal, and to be heard in any public proceeding involving sentencing, release or a plea.
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Verdin endorsed the proposed amendment for allowing victims “to refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused.” Depositions and pretrial discovery often are abused, she said.
That raised “serious concerns” for Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, an attorney. Victims’ rights are important, but so are the rights of the accused, he said. Iowa has a history of pretrial depositions and limited discovery that protects the rights of defendants, he said.
The wording of the amendment would give victims rights that no other Iowans would enjoy, according to Daniel Zeno of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.
“If this were to pass, victims of crime would be the only category of people that have an expressed right to privacy under the Iowa Constitution,” Zeno said. “We’re not saying that’s a bad thing, but if victims have privacy rights, why not the rest of us?”
Hinson expressed frustration with groups that support victims but have opposed the legislation year after year.
“I would challenge you: Come to me with some options,” she said. “I’ve heard nothing from you in the last year other than that you’re against this, yet you want to work on it.”
The amendment is needed to “send a clear signal that we in Iowa do value crime victims and their rights,” Hinson said.
Although she doesn’t get a say on the resolution, Gov. Kim Reynolds is on board.
“I actually advocated for that,” Reynolds said at a news conference Wednesday, referring to her support for Marsy’s Law in her Condition of the State speech in January. “I believe that Iowa should join multiple other states that have done that by really protecting their rights and (putting) that in the constitution.”
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Because the proposal seeks to amend Iowa’s Constitution, the wording would need to be approved by both the House and the Senate in the same form by two consecutive General Assemblies before it could be submitted to Iowa voters.
Erin Murphy of the Des Moines bureau contributed to this story
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