Colorado lawmakers look to add concept of consent into legal definition of sex assault

Legal definition in Colorado called confusing and outdated
Legal definition of sexual assault in Colorado called confusing and outdated
Posted at 11:04 AM, Feb 15, 2022

DENVER — A bipartisan bill in the Colorado legislature wants to change the definition of sexual assault in state law. The goal is to bring the concept of consent into the courtroom.

According to the legislation, the current definition of sexual assault is "sexual intrusion or penetration when the actor causes submission of the victim by means sufficient to cause submission against the victim's will."

“Our definition of consent for rape or sexual assault is out of date. It is rooted in the 1970s. It's confusing, it talks about submission being reasonably calculated. Those aren't terms that people use in modern day language," said Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, one of the bill sponsors.

If the bill were passed, it would change the definition to "sexual intrusion or sexual penetration knowing the victim does not consent."

“I want someone to be able to open up the statute books and to be able to read the law and understand the plain meaning. Right now, when I read our definition, even as a trained lawyer, I have trouble understanding," Soper said.

Those with the Colorado District Attorneys' Council said sexual assault cases are some of the most difficult to prosecute for a variety of reasons. Those can range from a lack of physical evidence or witnesses, to victim trauma responses resulting in them acting differently than a jury may expect. Plus, testifying about the assault can re-traumatize a survivor.

Adding a complex definition for sexual assault was not helping prosecutors convict perpetrators.

“What prosecutors were seeing was that jurors struggled to understand those terms. And yet, the judge really couldn't turn to them and say, 'it's about consent,'" said Jessica Dotter, the sexual assault resource prosecutor for CDAC. “A relationship does not constitute consent, for instance. And, of course, submission under fear does not constitute consent.”

HB22-1169 is scheduled for the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon. Soper said there is not much opposition to the legislation and that it's on the "fast track" to the governor's desk.

Kim, a survivor of sexual assault, shared her story with Denver7. She experienced two different incidents seven years apart.

“I was raped in Montana at gunpoint in 2007," Kim said. “In 2014, in Colorado, I experienced another violation in which the individual and I had agreed on the boundaries of our physical interaction, and then he went beyond that... I initially didn't know how to think about what had happened between us in 2014. It was very different than what had happened in 2007, but it still felt like a violation and felt wrong.”

Kim met with a sergeant at the a local sex crimes unit who told her, at the time, only 20% of rape cases were filed for prosecution. She was told reporting the crime would be a way of advocating for herself.

“I did end up reporting. The case did not end up being filed for prosecution," Kim said. “I was told that because the accused and I had been trying to create a relationship during the time that the violation happened that they didn't think jury would convict.”

Kim said the potential language change to the definition of sexual assault is an improvement. However, she said if the clause "knowing the victim does not consent" was replaced by "without the consent of the victim" it would be a stronger definition. The word "without" aligns with the FBI's definition of rape.

“That lack of consent is the crux of sexual assault. The updated language in the statute more accurately and clearly reflects the reality of sexual assault," Kim said.

Last year, there were 6,511 people who reported non-consensual sex offenses in Colorado. Of those, only 1,568 of the crimes were cleared. In reality, the numbers are likely much higher than that.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. In addition, the vast majority of perpetrators of such crimes will never go to jail or prison.

There are several Denver-area hotlines people can call if they are experiencing sexual violence or assault:

  • The Blue Bench: 303-322-7273 (English) | 303-329-0031 (Español)
  • The Center for Trauma & Resilience: 303-894-8000 (English) | 303-718-82829 (Español)
  • SafeHouse Denver: 303-318-9989