Georgia Appropriations Sub-Committee meets to discuss final draft of HB 51

I've been covering a bill that adds due process to Georgia's post-secondary institutions on a few sites over the past couple of weeks, and an appropriations subcommittee in the House finally met yesterday on February 23rd, 2017 to vote on amendments to the final draft of the bill before moving to a full committee vote and then to the floor next week. Be sure to monitor the current version of the bill! Just because the House moves on with this bill does not mean the Senate won't want to make changes later.

Here's a recorded stream of the bill's discussion. A splash page remains visible for eleven minutes, so skip to 11:00 to start watching the hearing. I will summarize key points in the video but will not state opinions until a separate article. If you wish to evaluate only the source material, then please watch the video instead of reading the summary below.

Rep. Earl Ehrhart opens the meeting by giving two representatives from each side of the bill a short time to state their points. Rep. Regina Quick briefly covers amendments to the bill, namely the insertion of the word "reasonably" with stated intent to distinguish an allegation from a rumor. Other changes listed below were made with intent to make HB 51 consistent with the Clery Act.

The next amendment allowed anonymity for the accuser in police reports by default. Ehrhart points out that this part of the bill pertains to sexual assault, even though (as Quick states later) the bill itself covers all felonies.

Quick covers the next amendment:

[In] our view it's a clarification—but in the view of many it's a very important clarification—that nothing we're doing in this new statute requires a victim of an alleged sexual assault to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation or to participate in any subsequent prosecution...

The next amendment was meant to created a distinction between disciplinary actions and non-disciplinary interim measures (i.e. "changing classes or changing dorms"). Quick then noted about Universities following their own code of conduct regarding non-participating accusers in investigations:

If the victim chooses not to proceed and not to participate, then the University will not be proceeding without a victim of an alleged sexual assault.

The last amendments pertain to privileged line of communication with survivors.

Rep. Ed Setzler questions if the committee deems that University hearings preceding possible disciplinary action constitute due process. Quick mentions that the intent is to give Universities space to define their own due process. Setzler responds:

I don't want to come in a hostile posture today just personally, but we've got testimony in the previous hearing that "hearings" were had we're in essence a kangaroo court. There was no semblance of—Even the evidence that was presented was not obtained in a valid way and anything that looked like a judicial or quasi-judicial hearing was just a mockery of that. So the fact that we're saying "have your hearings as hearings, in essence, have been done at the discretion of institution or otherwise—that's been proven to fail time and again.

Ehrhart responds by stating an intent to treat all felonies as equal still involves considerations for allegations of sexual assault.

Setzler asks if actors on post-secondary institutions can gather evidence in a way not valid with formal criminal proceedings off-campus, then compromise evidence collected according to what has been considered proper procedure. Ehrhart denies this by stating that the bill's language prevents campuses cannot prejudice civil authority or post-certified law enforcement operating investigations on campus. Ehrhart states he interprets the bill as saying to the institutions "let the civil authorities do their job."

The hearing moves to testimony.

First, Lisa Anderson, the executive director and founder of Atlanta Women for Equality, has the floor to oppose the bill. She talks about a rape she says she experienced and the feelings she experienced during and after when filing the report. She stated that those she spoke to in her organization would not report sexual assault if their names would become public record if they reached law enforcement, which is why she was appreciative of language in the bill stating this would not be a concern. She states that the opposition of the bill comes from, one, concerns that removing "procedural protections" specific to Universities in sexual assault investigations would expose victims to a judicial system that is believed to not adequately serve them, and two, a belief that campus hearings put two parties with similar stakes on "equal footing." Lisa continues by stating the OCR and Title IX already provide needed protections, and that passing the bill would not be good for respondents because it would automatically create a criminal record for investigations that could take years.

Nikala (?) Hayne, a student of Spelman College gets the floor, and states that survivors "are being listened to, believed, receiving counseling, [provided] non-contact contracts, among other resources and accommodations." Hayne claims that police officers are not properly trained on how to "sensitively help victims of sexual violence, especially marginalized survivors such as people with disabilities, women of color and LGTBQ folks", and Georgia's "strict laws" on rape would make it impossible for those in LGTBQ to report sexual assault. She moves on to claim that the judicial system is designed against her and other marginalized groups, and that HB 51 would violate federal laws. Hayne closes by asking why marginalized groups would trust the judicial system, and why Ehrhart would choose to write this bill after the parent of someone falsely accused contacted him even though false reports constitute "less than eight percent" of sexual assault cases nationally. Hayne asks why the bill focuses on that eight percent instead of a larger pool of sexual assault victims, and why HB 51 violates federal law to bias investigations towards perpetrators so that they can "rape on campus with impunity."

The representatives open with questions  to clarify "non-contact contract", "rape on campus with impunity" and survivors not being willing to report if they cannot speak to police officers on their terms.

Setzler responds to Hayne:

Our criminal justice system protects the rights of the one against the prerogatives of the majority. You could have an entire room full of people against you and if you yourself as an individual don't have your rights protected by due process and—that's the very nature of rights [...] The narrative that Chairman Ehrhart and Representative Quick are using this as some—the implication that this is not supporting people's rights is a 180 degree miss from when we do things like this we are protecting the one against the prerogatives of the many. [That's] what rights are all about.

Attorney Charles Jones has the floor.

Jones represents himself as a volunteer for Families Advocating for Campus Equality, an organization founded by mothers of falsely accused sons.  Jones paraphrases a federal judge that terms like "survivor" and "rapist" are not terms to presume, but are to be assigned only after a full and fair hearing. Jones states his hopes to see a clear and convincing standard return to post-secondary institutions given "the seriousness of this." Jones reports that the only peer-reviewed study of the frequency of false reports put false reports at 40%, not 8%. Opponents of the bill shake their heads and laugh, to which Ehrhart says "Please conduct yourself as adults." Jones offers to cite the study on request. Jones moves to say that in dealing with the harmed families experiencing the effects of a false report, the trauma of being falsely accused is not unlike the trauma of being raped. Opponents jeer, and Ehrhart interrupts to say:

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not one of those committee chairmen that's patient with those who cannot have an adult conversation. The courtesy that was shown to the first two people who testified will be shown to this one. Regardless of your position, I will ask you to leave if you cannot conduct yourselves in a manner that shows respect. You get one warning. This is a macro-aggressive environment; if you feel triggered, trigger somewhere else.

Jones recounts a letter from a mother detailing months of legal expenses and medication for her falsely accused son who developed PTSD, who attempted to go to school in Quick's district. Jones wraps up his testimony as his time ran to a close. No representatives had any questions.

The committee prepares to move to vote after a brief discussion between Calvin Smyre and Ehrhart about a possible incompatibility between University and traditional systems in dealing with cases of sexual assault and Smyre's willingness to reopen discussion on unstated pain points in the bill.

After brief words from Setzler on the importance of protecting everyone, whether they be victims or falsely accused, the committee moves to vote on the amendments in the bill.

None opposed. The motion passes.