General Assembly sends Wolf a bill adding protections against sexual assault in police custody

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The General Assembly has sent a bill to Gov. Tom Wolf that adds police officers to a law protecting people from sexual assault while they’re in custody.

The Commonwealth is one of 35 states, according to Buzzfeed News, where existing state law does not explicitly prevent police officers from having sexual contact with someone in their custody. Instead, police could claim that their actions, from groping to intercourse, were consensual.

The defense is not total — police can still get decades of time behind bars for sexually assaulting someone on the job.

Pennsylvania also has a law on “institutional sexual assault” that specifically targets sexual assault by a corrections official, group home employee, or mental health institution workers, among others. But police are not covered by the statute.

To include police officers, criminal justice reformers were forced to also back enhanced penalties for prison inmates who attack a prison guard, at a time when many seek to reign in sentences and reduce prison populations.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously on June 30, but faced some opposition in the House.

The addition of police custody protection from sexual assault “is not worth trading anything for. It should be a reality,” said Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, on the House Floor. 

“It is a [fictional] scenario to talk about, to act as if increasing penalties is a deterrent, especially for all those already incarcerated,” Miller added. 

Still, the lower chamber ended up passing the bill 173-28 Tuesday.

A 2015 nationwide investigation by the Buffalo News found that at least 28 Pennsylvania police officers engaged in sexual misconduct that was “linked to police work or the use of police resources.”

Of them, 20 were convicted. Some only served probation, others up to 64 years in prison. The other eight either resigned or were fired. 

Democrats included adding police to state institutional sexual assault laws among 19 policing reforms they wanted to pass after a June Black Lives Matter protest in the House. Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, sponsored the House’s version of the proposal.

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The idea also had bipartisan traction. House Republican Whip Rep. Donna Oberlander, of Clarion County, published a memo addressing the loophole on June 30, asking to ensure “that police officers cannot coerce anyone in their custody or control from engaging in sex acts with them.”

But neither Rabb nor Oberlander’s bills were advanced. Instead, Senate Republicans folded the measure into a separate House bill that makes it easier to convict an inmate of assaulting a corrections officer.

The proposal, from Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Somerset, passed the House in Dec. 2019. The bill lowers the standards to find an inmate guilty of such an offense.

In a statement, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, a union representing some 10,000 prison employees, said by making assault against prison employees easier to prove, there would be “a deterrent effect.”

“The deterrent effect will make it safer for corrections officers,” union chief Larry Blackwell said in a statement to the Capital-Star.

Mashing the two proposals together cost the bill the support of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

If a person outside of a prison struck someone or threatened to do so, they would be charged with a misdemeanor, according to a June 29 ACLU memo to lawmakers. Under Metzgar’s bill, an inmate doing the same would be charged with a felony.

“The trade off for this common sense reform … is to lower the legal standard for assault against other law enforcement officers — corrections officers — in order to ensure incarcerated people are excessively punished,” the memo said.

But the new bill also won 27 more Democratic votes in the House — including criminal justice reformers and Philadelphia Democratic Reps. Jordan Harris and Joanna McClinton. 

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, sponsored a Senate version of the police sexual assault bill. She told the Capital-Star that even with her language added in, she was almost a no vote when the bill came before the Senate.

She said it was not shocking that her bill was tied to a proposal she opposed, but that the tactic was common in the General Assembly.

“I just don’t think it had to be done that way,” Muth said. But the language’s passage “is one small step in the right direction, among many more that are needed.”

Unlike Muth, House sponsor Rabb still voted no. While he vote one way, he still celebrated seeing the proposal off to Wolf’s desk.

“It’s a shame we even need a law saying cops can’t have sex with people in custody,” Rabb said in a statement to the Capital-Star. “Unfortunately, we can’t outlaw patriarchy, but we can destroy its toolbox.”