Legislation seeking to stem sexual violence passes the House unanimously

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Vermont’s sexual violence laws could be strengthened under a bill advanced by the House Wednesday evening.

The legislation, H.183, would clarify that people cannot consent to sex if they are substantially impaired by drugs and alcohol, unconscious or otherwise incapacitated.  

The bill would also mandate data collection after a sexual assault to better assess why so few cases are prosecuted, and where in the judicial process cases collapse. The legislation would create an intercollegiate justice council for sexual violence on Vermont college campuses. It would also pilot an expansion of forensic medical care for survivors outside of emergency room settings — currently the only place where such care is available.

The House preliminarily approved the bill by a vote of 131-0. A final vote is expected Thursday, after which the legislation would move to the Senate.

In 2019, more than 1,400 Vermonters reached out to member organizations of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence following a sexual assault. Nationally, one in five women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, and one in three women experience other forms of sexual violence.

Rep. Selene Colburn, P/D-Burlington, who presented the bill on the virtual House floor Wednesday, said BIPOC and transgender people are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. 

“Although much of this really, through case law, through jury instruction, through other mechanisms, this is the criteria being applied in our courts, this makes it really explicit and clear and consistent across the state,” Colburn said.

Prior to approving the bill, the House signed off on an amendment removing mention of developmental or psychiatric disabilities as reasons why a person may be unable to consent to sex, as those categories were already covered under the “otherwise incapable of understanding the nature of the conduct at issue” section of the bill.

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, said data collection would help the state better understand why acts of sexual violence often are not prosecuted.