Arizona Sen. Victoria Steele

Sexual assault survivors may soon have access to protective court orders that otherwise have been unavailable, thanks to a bill working its way through the Arizona Legislature.

State Sen. Victoria Steele of Tucson sponsored Senate Bill 1250 to address what she called a gap in the law related to court-ordered protection for sexual assault victims.

“One out of every five women is sexually assaulted in our country, and 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail,” Steele said during a Feb. 21 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We really need to make sure that we’re doing work that protects people who are vulnerable and who have been victimized.”

Under Arizona law, there are two types of restraining orders: Orders of protection and injunctions against harassment. An order of protection can only be obtained against a spouse or former spouse, a person the victim lives with or previously lived with, a family member or someone with whom the victim has a child.

An injunction against harassment allows the court to prohibit a person from harassing, annoying, alarming, contacting or coming near the victim’s residence, work or school. Arizona defines harassment as “a series of acts over any period of time,” meaning that two or more incidents are required to obtain an injunction.

“When I learned that there was a bit of a gap in the law, I knew I had to do something,” Steele said during the hearing, explaining that if a person isn’t in an intimate relationship with their assailant, there is no legal recourse to obtain court-mandated protection. “If a person is raped and they work with this person or they go to school with this person, they really have no recourse. So in order to be safe from the abuser, the rapist, they have to leave school ... or they’d have to quit their jobs.”

SB 1250 would allow victims of sexual violence to obtain an injunction against harassment against the alleged attacker after a single act, with the injunction in place for a year. As with existing injunctions, the person accused would have the opportunity to request a hearing if he or she objected to the victim’s claim.

The bill would also waive costs for obtaining the injunction. While there’s no fee for obtaining an injunction against harassment in Pima County, petitioners are required to pay the Pima County Sheriff’s Department a $50 deposit to cover mileage for having the injunction served. If the mileage cost amounts to less than $50, the difference will be refunded, but the petitioner could also owe more if the mileage costs exceed $50.

“I didn’t realize that sexual violence was treated a little differently and I wanted to make sure that we close that gap,” Steele said. “I want to make sure that people who are raped are able to get that extra measure of protection.”

Forty-one percent of women and 19 percent of men in Arizona have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime, Jason Vail Cruz of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence said during the hearing. Other states, such as Texas, have already provided protections similar to SB 1250, Vail Cruz said.

One Arizona woman, Kate Chisholm, t old the committee that after being drugged and raped by a co-worker, she wasn’t sure how to protect herself or other co-workers from her assailant. Her employer was unwilling to discipline him, but suggested she get an order of protection to keep him out of the building they worked in. After speaking to a victim advocate, Chisholm said she learned that wasn’t a viable option, since she hadn’t been in a relationship with her co-worker and would have to concede that the assault was a “sexual encounter” to qualify for an order of protection. Because it only happened once, she didn’t qualify for an injunction against harassment.

Chisholm said she felt she didn’t have any option to protect herself or others.

“This bill would have created an avenue to potentially have removed the predator from our mutual workplace, which he ultimately was removed from anyway after a lengthy and grueling investigation,” Chisholm said. “This bill has the potential to help victims like myself who find that their workplaces fall short of providing adequate protection for victims when the criminal is also their employee.”

The bill would also give victims a plausible legal option to keep their assailant away and get the space to heal, Chisholm said.

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Ron Blake, another sexual assault survivor, also testified in support of the bill, saying that victims feel like they have no recourse when they can’t get the protection they feel they need.

While there’s been much support for the bill, one group has expressed concerns about the general process of obtaining an injunction against harassment, saying that sexual assault should be treated seriously rather than “throwing paper at people.”

“The current injunction against harassment law is incredibly over-broad, and we’re adding to that issue right now,” Arizona Citizens Defense League president Dave Kopp said during the hearing. “We really believe that the restraining order laws need to be more comprehensive, more delineated so that minor things like ‘I’m annoyed with you’ are treated one way and serious things like sexual assault are treated a completely different way. Right now the punishment is basically the same.”

SB 1250 unanimously passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee. It’s currently awaiting hearing in the House Rules Committee, chaired by Republican Rep. Anthony Kern.

Given the series of unanimous votes in the Senate and House to usher SB 1250 along, Steele said that once legislators were aware of the gap, they took it seriously.

“I believe that if (the bill) makes it through the juggernaut that is the House Rules Committee, it will sail through the House floor,” Steele said.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191.

Caitlin is a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations. She graduated from the UA's journalism school in 2014 and has won a dozen state awards for investigative and public records-based reporting.