Governor Steve Bullock signed into law a bill that updates Montana’s sexual assault laws by revising the definition of consent.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, in a press release, called the change in the law a turning point to address sexual assault. “…Senate Bill 29 will fundamentally change how we prosecute sexual assault crimes in Montana, removing many of the barriers preventing prosecutors from convicting perpetrators of rape,” he said. "All victims of sexual assault deserve justice, and I'm proud to have worked with Senator (Diane) Sands and her colleagues in the legislature to ensure that, in Montana, 'no' means 'no.'"
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said it is too early to tell how the change will impact prosecutions.
Montana was recently thrust into the national spotlight on the issue of rape because of how the Missoula County Attorney’s office handled allegations of sexual assault involving University of Montana football players. As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated and forced changes in the way Missoula County handled allegations.
Earlier this year, the Billings Gazette reported that the Yellowstone County Attorney’s office prosecuted 0 rapes cases despite the fact 60 were reported in the state’s largest county in 2016.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito welcomed the change lawmakers made to Montana’s Sexual Assault law, but he’s not certain it will result in more prosecutions.
“What I can tell you now is that there is some good language in here where it talks about you should not be considering the manner of dress the person was wearing at the time, whether they had a current or previous sexual relationship does not really constitute consent,” he said.
Senate Bill 29 changed the definition of consent between adults to mean overt words or actions. It also removed the requirement that “force” must be proven to convict someone of sexual assault.
Twito said adding that clarity to the law is positive. He said it will be part of the instructions given to jurors in cases that go to trial.
“Jurors have a hard time believing a woman would just sit there. But what research has told us in reality is that this happens a lot. That’s a body’s natural reaction to a traumatic event,” he said.
Earlier this year Twito told the Billings Gazette he declined to press charges in all of the 60 alleged rape cases last year because he didn’t think the cases were strong enough.
When asked if that will change with this revised law, Twito said his prosecutors will continue to evaluate the circumstances, the credibility of witnesses, and work with investigators in deciding whether to take a case to trial.
“Last year was a strange year,” he said. “But we’re not going to change how we review cases we’re going to bring cases forward that we feel we can obtain convictions, that we feel that are appropriate to bring forward.”
Senate Bill 29 also created a new category of aggravated crime that enhances the penalties when force is used in a rape.
Twito said his office will continue meet with all rape victims and direct them to available resources regardless whether a case moves through the judicial system.
Senate Bill 29 was drafted at the request of the Legislative Law and Justice Interim Committee and introduced in the 2017 Montana Legislature. Senator Diane Sands was the main sponsor of the bill. It was signed into law by Governor Steve Bullock on May 4, 2017.