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'Rape is rape' 

Local officials are the impetus behind efforts to change the legal definition of rape in California

In February 2009, a Los Angeles County woman returned home from a party with her boyfriend, her brother, and his friends. The couple went to bed; the woman soon fell asleep and the boyfriend left the bedroom. After he left, one of the brother’s friends allegedly snuck into the room and initiated sex with the woman; thinking it was her boyfriend, she consented to his advances. But soon she woke up and realized the man wasn’t her boyfriend, she’s said, and she began to scream and resist.

click to enlarge ON A MISSION:  Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley (above)and 35th District Assemblyman Katcho Achadijan (bottom), are working to stop “rape by fraud.” - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • ON A MISSION: Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley (above)and 35th District Assemblyman Katcho Achadijan (bottom), are working to stop “rape by fraud.”
- GET CAUGHT UP:  For more information about 35th Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley’s mission, visit countyofsb.org/da. -
  • GET CAUGHT UP: For more information about 35th Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley’s mission, visit countyofsb.org/da.

Earlier this month, a California appeals court overturned the initial rape conviction against the defendant in this case. In its ruling, the court cited an 1872 state law, which says a person who impersonates someone is guilty of rape only if the victim is married and the person is pretending to be his or her spouse.

 

The ruling garnered a hailstorm of press on the national level. In a statement to the media, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris called the law “arcane” and vowed to “work with the Legislature to fix.”

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO

What might be less well known, however, is that two local officials—Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and 35th District Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian—have been working hard to change the law for more than three years.

The DA first approached Achadjian about the law back in 2010; she also was dealing with a sexual assault case in which a woman reported initially believing her assailant to be her boyfriend.

“The woman was asleep in the bedroom and the boyfriend had fallen asleep watching TV on the couch,” Dudley said in a recent interview, recounting the allegations. “The front door was closed but unlocked. The defendant came into the house and walked through the living room into the bedroom, took off his pants and underwear, got into bed [with the woman], and penetrated her.”

Dudley said the woman realized it wasn’t her boyfriend when she heard snoring in the other room.

“She started to scream and resist. The boyfriend heard her screams and ran into the bedroom. I think the boyfriend hit [the defendant] and he ran off. He was later caught by police.”

Investigators linked the man, through witness identification, to several cases in which he had allegedly broken into women’s homes.

“I think he had touched other women, but nothing this serious or violent,” Dudley said.

But while prosecuting the case, the DA came to the conclusion that what the man was said to have done wasn’t considered rape under the law.

“Probably the worst day in my life as a prosecutor was when I came to that realization and had to inform the woman that it legally wasn’t rape,” she said. “[The woman] was devastated and angry.”

Frustrated by her limitations, Dudley reached out to Achadjian for help. The freshman assemblyman soon drafted and introduced A.B. 765—his first bill in office—to change the legal definition of rape.

“To me, this was a no-brainer. Even just talking about it makes you sick,” Achadjian told the Sun in a recent interview. “Whether it’s forcible or not, a rape is a rape. A woman is a woman and should be protected whether she’s young, old, married, engaged, or single.”

Referring to the 1872 legal definition of rape, Achadjian said, “It’s like bringing horse-driven carriage laws to our freeways.”

The bill won unanimous approval in the Assembly, but was held up in the Senate Public Safety Committee because of a policy that bars legislators from enacting laws that would increase the state’s prison population.

Dudley recalled a political aide telling her three of the committee members were in tears after the hearing.

“In my mind, this was the exception to the rule because [rape-by-fraud] happens so infrequently,” she said.

Added Achadjian, “Policies are meant to be more flexible than laws.”

Undeterred, the assemblyman re-introduced the bill earlier this month. He even went on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 to drum up support from the public.

“I believe with all the media [coverage] this time and the sensitivity of the matter, it will pass,” he said, adding that the recent elimination of the Three Strikes Law also improves the bill’s chances.

Achadjian said he’s received a great deal of help from Dudley, Speaker of the House John Pérez, and the attorney general.

“My plan is to expedite it through the Assembly,” he said.

As for the Senate, he said, “That policy should not have been applied because it’s so sensitive. It’s almost like raping a woman twice.”

Amy Asman is managing editor of the Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the south. Contact her at aasman@santamariasun.com.

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