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Sex registry bill defeated as senators protest failure to expand rights for sex abuse victims

May 9, 2019

Lawmakers argued passionately and the Senate president turned off a fellow Republican’s microphone as senators killed a bill expanding the number of people who are eligible to be removed from Arizona’s sex offender registry to protest the blocking of an unrelated bill that would give victims of child sex abuse more time to sue in civil court.

House Bill 2613, sponsored by Speaker Rusty Bowers, passed 56-4 in the House of Representatives. But it failed 11-18 in the Senate on Tuesday after Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, led the charge against it, questioning why the legislature should take up a bill to help registered sex offenders while stonewalling his bill to help child sex abuse victims.

Boyer’s bill, Senate Bill 1255, would give childhood sexual abuse victims seven years after they turn 18 to sue over childhood sexual abuse, including filing suit against a person or organization over intentional or negligent action that allowed the abuse to occur. If it occurs later than age 25, the bill would also allow a victim seven years to sue after first disclosing the abuse to a medical or mental health professional.

But the bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee after its chairman, Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, declined to give it a hearing. A similar measure Boyer managed to get heard in a House committee was defeated by his fellow Republicans.

Boyer said Arizona is one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to giving childhood victims the time they need to sue over their abuse. He said victims now only have two years to sue under Arizona’s personal injury statute, saying the law gives a victim of childhood sexual abuse no more time to sue than someone who slips on a banana peel at the mall.

He noted that Arizona law allows someone six years to go to court over a contract dispute.

“I don’t know how we can vote for a bill that allows individuals to get off the sex offender registry list when they’re soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. Meanwhile, we’re doing nothing to help child victims of sexual assault,” Boyer said.

Boyer and Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican, argued not just about the merits of the bill, but about why it didn’t get a hearing in the Judiciary Committee. And the arguments continued after the Senate moved on to other business.

Every Democratic senator voted with Boyer against HB2613. Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, recounted her own experiences being sexually assaulted by her grandfather as a young child, and her realization decades later that he’d victimized many others.

“I can’t in good conscience vote on this bill when we can’t hear and vote on Mr. Boyer’s bill. That has to happen,” Steele said.

Several Republicans backed Boyer on his protest over his bill. Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she shared his concerns.

“We need to give the child victim of sexual abuse the time that they need to come forward. And that will require a civil action, not just a criminal action. And when a child comes forward as an adult to disclose the horrific abuse, that now-adult is saving future victims,” she said.

Others defended HB2613, saying it has nothing to do with Boyer’s legislation. Sens. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, and Rick Gray, R-Sun City, noted that the bill has a limited scope. It only expands eligibility to be removed from the sex offender registry for certain crimes, and it has several stringent requirements. Offenders must be 35 years old, must have had clean criminal records for 10 years, and their victims can’t have been younger than 15 years old.

And if an offender meets those criteria, a judge must still approve his or her request to be removed from the registry. Judges are under no obligation to grant such requests.

Gray used the example of a person who solicited sex online from someone he thought was a teenager, but turned out to be an undercover police officer.

“I am voting for this bill because I do care about that individual who made a huge mistake in their young life and have corrected it and changed as an adult, but has absolutely zero opportunity to get that change recognized,” he said.

Farnsworth said he was initially skeptical about HB2613, but has become more comfortable with it after hearing from experts. But he reserved most of his comments to respond to Boyer’s allegations about SB1255.

Farnsworth said he is open to lenghening the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. What Boyer is proposing, however, would effectively eliminate the statute of limitations, he said, and Farnsworth questioned how someone could defend themselves in court over allegations going back decades.

“Statutes of limitations don’t exist to protect guilty people. They exist to protect innocent people,” Farnsworth said.

During the debate over the next bill on the Senate’s agenda, Boyer and Farnsworth continued to trade barbs. But once the Senate moved on to the bill after that, Senate President Karen Fann put her foot down.

Boyer rose to explain his vote on a bill on special license plates for women military veterans, but made it clear that he had more to say on the dispute over his childhood sexual abuse bill. When he ignored Fann’s request to stick to the legislation at hand, the Senate president declared him out of order and shut off his microphone.

His microphone off, Boyer refused to vote, saying victims were being silenced and he was being denied an opportunity to correct the record.

“I’m informed that you do have to vote,” Fann said, after consulting with a Senate attorney.

“Or what?” Boyer asked, his microphone still shut off.

In response, Boyer requested a roll call vote on whether to overrule Fann’s ruling that he was out of order. After it became clear that Fann would prevail – several of his allies sided with her on the vote – Boyer withdrew his motion. At the urging of Carter, Fann and others, Boyer saved his final remarks until after the Senate finished with its other business.

Boyer said Farnsworth agreed to hear the bill extending the statute of limitations by seven years, and to amend it so that any victim of childhood sexual abuse who had already exceeded that time limit would have an additional two years after the passage of the legislation to bring suit in civil court. Farnsworth said he misunderstood and believed he was being asked to add two years to the new seven-year limit.

After the Senate adjourned for the day, Boyer told the Mirror that he’s hopeful that the legislature will still take up his bill, despite it having missed several procedural deadlines. He said he’s willing to abandon the two-year window for victims whose claims are time-barred, but that the seven-year statute of limitations is non-negotiable. He said that seven-year window would start now.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said.

He said that seven-year window would not necessarily start at age 18 for all victims, but at the time a person realizes they’ve been victimized.

He used the example of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, pointing out that many of his victims didn’t realize until long after they’d turned 18 that the abuse was not part of a legitimate medical procedure, as Nassar had claimed.

Boyer has said he won’t vote for any budget until his bill is passed, an ultimatum he reiterated on the Senate floor. That could be a problem, given that Senate Republicans have only a 17-13 advantage of their Democratic colleagues, meaning they can only afford to lose two GOP votes.

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