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For immediate release – Thursday, January 15, 2009.
Contact Bob Brammer -- 515-281-6699.

Attorney General Proposes Criminal Law Changes to Protect Vulnerable Iowans

Miller calls for measures to protect children, the elderly, victims of sexual predators, victims of domestic abuse, and others

Des Moines. Attorney General Tom Miller is asking the Legislature to amend Iowa’s criminal laws in order to prevent and reduce domestic violence injuries and murders, sex offenses against children, crimes against older Iowans, and other crimes.

“These measures would help protect some of Iowa’s most-vulnerable people,” Miller said. [List of proposals follows below.]

“For example, domestic violence homicides account for a major share of Iowa killings each year – and most of the victims are killed by guns,” Miller said. “We are asking the Legislature to prohibit the possession of firearms by persons convicted of domestic abuse assault or persons who are subject to a domestic abuse no-contact order.”

Another proposal would help protect domestic violence victims by treating “strangulation” as a very serious offense even if the choking didn’t result in injury or death. Strangulation has been identified as a “precursor” to escalating domestic violence and homicide.

Several measures proposed by Miller are aimed at preventing sex offenses targeting children. Miller asked lawmakers to strengthen laws against sexual predators using the Internet to entice young victims, persons who traffic in child pornography, and persons who exploit children in “human trafficking.” Another proposal addresses dependent-adult abuse, including criminalizing physical and sexual exploitation even it did not result in injury.

Miller also has asked lawmakers to maintain at least current levels of state funding for 31 local programs around the state that serve victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and for the crime victim compensation program that assists victims of violent crime.

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Summary of the Attorney General’s
2009 Criminal Law Legislative Proposals

Maintain Current Levels of Crime-Victim Funding

In addition to proposals to change criminal statutes (below), Attorney General Miller has asked the Legislature to maintain at least current levels of state funding for 31 local crime victim programs around the state, and for the crime victim compensation program, which helps pay certain expenses for victims of violent crime. (See www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org, ‘latest news,’ reporting on news conference conducted January 7, 2009.)

Miller asked lawmakers to provide $4 million for the local programs, which serve victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Last year the programs served more than 26,000 victims, including more than 5,000 children. For the last few years, the Legislature has directed that state funding for the local victim service programs be taken from reserves in the state’s Crime Victim Compensation Fund (which is designed primarily to pay specified out-of-pocket expenses for individual victims of crime.) But reserves in the Compensation Fund no longer can sustain full state funding of the local programs around the state, so the appropriation is necessary.

Change Criminal Statutes

Proposals to Prevent and Punish Sex Offenses Targeting Children

1. Prosecute Internet predators for felony enticement.

Amend the “enticement” statute to support the aggressive detection and prosecution of the growing scourge of sexual predators using the Internet to stalk young victims. Iowa law enforcement officers use undercover operations to intervene before these predators have a chance to lure actual minors to engage in prohibited sexual acts. However, under recent appellate interpretations of the enticement statute, predators who believe they are talking to a minor under the age of 16, but are actually communicating with a police decoy, can only be charged with a misdemeanor level offense.

2. Allow multiple charges for child pornography collections on a single computer.

Amend the “sexual exploitation of minors” statute to allow multiple criminal counts to be charged against offenders who collect numerous images of child pornography – even when their collection is stored on a single computer. In 2007, the Iowa Supreme Court interpreted the current statute as limiting the number of counts to the number of storage units. Under this interpretation, a prosecutor can bring only one charge per computer, even when an offender possesses hundreds of electronic images of child pornography. This proposal is aimed at combating the saturation of child pornography on the Internet by more realistically addressing the danger posed by offenders who engage in the prolific collection of pornographic images of children.

3. Prohibit sexual abuse by deception.

Amend the definition of “sexual abuse” to reach situations where the victim is deceived about the perpetrator’s intent to commit a sexual act. Under the current definition of sexual abuse, it is not a crime for an adult – who lacks medical training – to touch the genitals of a 16- or 17-year-old victim under the ruse of conducting a “health examination” or a “scientific study,” even if prosecutors can prove that the adult had the intent to commit sexual abuse against the victim’s will. In recent years, several situations have come to light where naive victims, typically minors, were persuaded to submit to what would otherwise fit the definition of sexual contact, but could not be prosecuted because the victims agreed to the touching, based on the perpetrator’s fraudulent representation regarding the nature of the act to secure their compliance.

4. Improve enforcement authority for Iowa’s human trafficking law

Clarify the definition of “commercial activity” in the human trafficking chapter and extend the protections of the victim rights chapter to child victims of human trafficking. The current definition of commercial activity requires the commission of a sex act as defined in the criminal code. As such, exploitation of minors in the nude dancing industry is not covered by the chapter, despite the use the phrase “performance in a strip club.” (This was the situation in a 2008 human-trafficking prosecution involving nude dancing by girls aged 16 and 15 who were under the control of older persons.) The substitution of the phrase “sexual activity” for “sex act” would serve to fulfill what appears to be the original legislative intent. The proposal also would allow child victims of human trafficking to obtain victim services, privacy protections and guardians at litem.

5. Establish a reliable payment source for Guardians ad Litem

Ensure that children who are victims of physical and sexual abuse have access to court-appointed guardians ad litem by ensuring a consistent funding source for these appointments. Child victims of sexual abuse or child endangerment are entitled to the appointment of a guardian ad litem to represent their interests in certain criminal prosecutions. The costs of these guardians ad litem was taken away from the indigent defense fund in 2003 without the identification of an alternative source of payment. In some counties, county funds are used to pay for the appointments; in other counties, the cost is paid by state funds through the clerk of court. To maintain consistency in the use of this important resource for children, the cost should be paid from state funds through the clerks of court. The proposal also would provide for recovering these costs from the offenders as a form of restitution.

6. Discourage public displays of indecency

Replace the current indecent exposure statute with the language used in the national Model Penal Code to eliminate the requirement that the offender expose his or her pubes or genitals to another and to address instances of public masturbation. Iowa courts recently have interpreted the current indecent exposure statute as not only requiring that the offender know or reasonably should know that the viewer would be offended, but that an actual viewer be offended. Under this interpretation, the statute is ineffectual if the perpetrator has not targeted a specific victim, but is simply seeking sexual gratification from public exposure. The goal of the proposal is to shift the focus of the crime from the viewer’s reaction to the offender’s conduct.

Proposals to Prevent Domestic Violence Injury and Homicide

7. Domestic violence offenders and possession firearms: Prohibit persons from possessing a firearm who (1) have been convicted of a domestic abuse assault, or (2) are the subject of a current pending domestic abuse no-contact order.

The measure would promote public safety and prevent death and serious injury in domestic violence cases. Federal law currently prohibits possession of firearms by persons who have either been convicted of domestic abuse or ordered to avoid contact with a domestic abuse victim (following notice and a hearing.) However, a state law is needed to enable state and local authorities, who must deal with the vast majority of domestic violence cases, to enforce this prohibition. More than twenty states already have passed legislation mirroring provisions of the federal law.

8. Define strangulation as a form of felonious assault in a domestic violence situation.

Add a class “D” felony to the domestic abuse assault provisions for instances where a batterer impedes the normal breathing or circulation of the victim by applying pressure to the throat or neck or obstructing the nose or mouth. This proposal recognizes that strangulation has been identified as one of the most significant “lethality factors” when predicting the escalation of domestic violence. Perpetrators use strangulation to silence their victims and as a form of power and control. However, “choking” is inconsistently prosecuted as a serious offense because victims may minimize the event and police and prosecutors may fail to recognize the serious nature of the conduct. At least 20 states have statutes specifically criminalizing strangulation or using the act of strangulation to enhance the penalty for another existing crime. This measure would strengthen domestic violence protection for victims by providing another tool for holding perpetrators accountable before the situation escalates to murder.

Proposal to Prevent Crimes Against Older Iowans

9. Expand options for prosecuting dependent adult abuse.

Amend dependent adult abuse statutes to add offense level gradations to be more consistent with other provisions of the criminal code; criminalize caretaker physical and sexual exploitation which does not result in injury to the victim; expand the definition of wanton neglect to include conduct harmful to the emotional welfare of a dependent adult; and require financial institutions to report cases of suspected financial exploitation. This proposal would correct apparent oversights in the definition of dependent adult abuse to address all abuse, whether or not it results in injury.

Additional Proposals to Help Crime Victims and Reduce Crime

10. Expand privacy protections for victims of crime who are minors.

Protect juvenile victims of crime from public exposure by preventing the release of their names or other information likely to disclose their identity in criminal complaints and other public court records. Under current law, only children (under the age of 14) who are victims of certain sexual crimes are provided protection from publicity when the State files criminal charges. This proposal would shield all crime victims under the age of 18 from having their identity appear on criminal court documents open to the public.

11. Enhance crime-solving ability by adding persons convicted of aggravated misdemeanors to DNA database.

Amend DNA profiling statute to require persons convicted of aggravated misdemeanors to submit a DNA sample. The current statute requires all convicted felons to submit DNA samples. Keeping a comprehensive database of known offenders allows law enforcement to identify and apprehend sex offenders and other criminals more quickly, prevents additional crimes, helps solves cold cases and improves the delivery of justice for victims. The value of such a database would be improved by expanding the number of known samples. While budget considerations may slow appropriations for the implementation of this proposal, expanding the database at this time would be a proper statement of public policy.

12. Fund drug treatment to reduce crime.

The Attorney General repeatedly has proposed additional funding to deal with drug-related crime, and continues to believe that such programs are a key means to reduce crime. However, in a time of severe budget limits, additional funding is not being proposed for FY10. The Attorney General urges the Legislature to find funds in the future for programs such as expanding proven community-based substance abuse treatment services; expanding drug courts tailored to the needs of families, juveniles and adults in local communities; and funding after-school drug-prevention programs. There is a clear linkage between drugs and crime, and Iowa can reduce crime if we provide more drug treatment and prevention programs.