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Document: SB 569: Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights

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Cole County Presiding Judge Pat Joyce heard arguments Thursday from attorneys on both sides of a lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of a new sexual assault law passed this year, though Joyce gave no immediate indication of when she may issue a ruling in the case.

The law at issue — state Senate bill 569 — was signed into law in July by Gov. Mike Parson.

The law contains multiple provisions involving sexual assaults — including its original purpose to better track and process sexual assault evidence collection kits, as well as later additions about telehealth services for evidence collection and protocols for forensic examinations of survivors and their interviews with criminal justice officials.

It's that latter set of items — the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights — that deals with survivors' interviews with law enforcement and prosecuting or defense attorneys that the state's public defender system has taken issue with.

The lawsuit by Mary Fox, director of the state's public defender system, some assistant public defenders and men charged with one or more sexual offenses argues the law would prevent public defenders from effectively interviewing survivors because the law would compel defense attorneys to act in ways against their clients' interests.

The law would require defense attorneys, before interviewing a survivor, to inform them of their rights per the law and other rules and regulations of the state departments of Public Safety and Health and Senior Services, and that document would have to be signed by the survivor.

Jeff Esparaza, who represented the plaintiffs Thursday in Joyce's court — a virtual trial through a video teleconference call — said, "Our primary concern is not being the government's messenger. We have absolutely no policy dispute with testing rape kits or doing telehealth for victims; we've got not problem with any of that."

Esparaza added it's logical that defense attorneys show compassion to survivors: "We don't gain anything by bullying or attacking victims, survivors. Jurors don't take kindly to people who bully victims. Our credibility is at stake in front of juries," and that kind of behavior is also not viewed kindly by judges — "rightly so."

He said the state should protect the interests of accusers, but that's not the role of public defenders, and the adversarial system is at stake.

Paul M. Brown, who represented the defendants — the state, and Attorney General Eric Schmitt — said there are already professional conduct rules that govern the behavior of attorneys and that do not violate First Amendment protections, and the sexual assault law's requirements are no different.

The public defenders' lawsuit also argues the law was unconstitutionally passed, including because it's allegedly too broad and not limited to a single subject.

Brown argued the legislation was properly enacted, and anything added to it as the bill made its way through the Legislature was still part of a single subject so long as it was germane to the bill's original purpose — protecting the interests and rights of sexual assault survivors.

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