Md. Lawmakers Look to Repeal State's 'Archaic' Sex Laws

ANNAPOLIS (January 23, 2020)—Maryland lawmakers hope to repeal "archaic" provisions in the state's spousal defense for sex crimes and sodomy laws with the reintroduction of legislation this session.

Lawmakers on Jan. 30 expect to hear Senate bill 230, which would repeal the use of marriage as a defense to prosecution of some sex crimes and, earlier this week, introduced House bill 81, which would repeal the crimes of sodomy and unnatural or perverted sexual practice.

Under current state law, a person may not be prosecuted for first- or second-degree rape or third- and fourth-degree sexual offenses if the victim is the legal spouse of the assailant at the time of the offense.

The bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, told Capital News Service that she thinks current law treats a spouse as property.

"It's really disrespectful, it's wrong and it's antiquated," Lee said.

By 1993, all states and Washington, D.C. had laws against marital rape. In many states such as Maryland, however, certain loopholes still exist in sexual assault laws.

Delegate Charlotte Crutchfield, D-Montgomery, who will be the lead sponsor of an identical House bill, told Capital News Service she hopes to reintroduce the legislation this week. She said the legislation would be identical to last session's House bill 958, which failed to advance out of committee.

Both Lee and Crutchfield were optimistic about the bills' passage, noting significant support for the legislation. Both said education would be key to the legislation moving forward.

"People still just have in their mind this archaic notion that, 'If I am married, I can do anything to them,'" Crutchfield said.

Exemptions to the current law allow for prosecution of spousal sex crimes, such as if the person and person's legal spouse have lived apart under a written separation agreement or for at least three months before the alleged incident occurred. Current exemptions also allow prosecution if a person uses force or threat of force and the person does not have the consent of the spouse.

The legislation joins House bill 81, which would repeal the crimes of sodomy and unnatural or perverted sexual practice, as another of the "archaic" sex laws in Maryland that lawmakers are looking to repeal.

Under current law, the act of sodomy is a felony. Current law also prohibits oral sex with people or animals or "unnatural or perverted sexual practice(s)."

During a hearing on House bill 81 Tuesday, supporters argued that the legislation repeals a law that has mostly become obsolete through updates to the state's animal abuse laws and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled it was unconstitutional to prohibit consensual sexual activity between adults, regardless of sexual orientation.

Supporters said current laws can be unfairly used to target members of the LGBTQ community.

"There's sort of this long history of sort of the heterosexual side of it being ignored and not enforced, which really leaves the enforcement being on LGBTQ folk, and sodomy has largely become a, like a badge of disdain by the state against queer folk and has been used to punish homosexuals and others," said C.P. Hoffman, an attorney with FreeState Justice, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Maryland, who prefers to be referred to with neutral pronouns and testified at the hearing.

"It's really well past time for Maryland to move forward, repeal this vestige of our old like, of our past," they said.

Prosecutors have filed several hundred violations in the state's district and circuit courts between July 2018 and the end of June 2019, the Maryland Judiciary reported. Four people were sentenced on five counts of sodomy and 10 were sentenced on 11 counts of unnatural or perverted sex acts over the same period, according to a state legislative analysis.

Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel at Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, testified in support of House bill 81 Tuesday and told Capital News Service she expects to testify on Jan. 30 in support of Senate bill 230 as well.

Jordan said repealing both, which she called "archaic provisions of the law," were among her organization's top priorities this session.

Laure Ruth, legal director at the Women's Law Center of Maryland, told Capital News Service that she is optimistic the legislation will pass this year and plans to testify in support of the bill. She said the #MeToo movement has helped educate people about what is and isn't acceptable in terms of sexual interactions.

"People know what consent is now, or should know what consent is now," she said.

Ruth said she doesn't expect a dramatic increase in cases of spousal rape accusations, citing potential privacy concerns. She said many victims may feel shame or humiliation and choose not to prosecute. However, she said this would be a good step.

Lee agreed.

"It will be a win-win for women who are usually the victims of this and and which the spousal defense is used against," Lee said. "We need to repeal this right away and get us into the 21st century."

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