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North Dakota toughens up penalties for misdemeanor sex assault

North Dakota toughens up penalties for misdemeanor sex assault

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FARGO -- North Dakota has toughened up its lightest penalties for sexual assault.

Gov. Doug Burgum signed a law last week that increases the maximum penalty for the least-severe misdemeanor sexual assault conviction from 30 days in jail to up to a year in jail.

House Bill 1218 was initiated by county state’s attorneys, who have said there’s a gap in North Dakota sex-crime statutes.

The bill was approved without a single dissenting vote in the House or the Senate and signed by Burgum on Tuesday. 

Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association, said it will help bring justice in cases where the defendant says sexual contact was consensual and the victim says it wasn’t.

Those cases can be difficult to prosecute, he said, and they often end up falling apart.

“A victim would be much more comforted by the fact their attacker got a year in jail as opposed to 30 days,” Birst said.

Under the law, sexual assault is “basically when you touch somebody inappropriately,” he said.

Currently, rape and sex assault convictions range from, at the most serious, a Class AA felony gross sexual imposition charge punishable by a maximum life in prison all the way down to a charge is just a Class B misdemeanor, the state’s lowest-level criminal offense -- the same level as being a minor in possession of alcohol.

“Going from the absolute highest penalty case to the absolute lowest is a tough pill to swallow,” Birst said.

The bill changed the lowest charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor.

Another bill initiated by the state’s attorneys’ association aims to make it less traumatic for children and vulnerable adults to testify against defendants.

House Bill 1387 would allow them to answer questions live from outside the courtroom, via interactive television, reducing the fear they may feel having to sit near a defendant who has hurt them.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, is similar to laws enacted in other states. She said it would minimize the emotional impact on the child or vulnerable adult of having to recount the crime.

Birst said North Dakota currently allows for videotaped testimony in these cases, but it’s not as effective as a jury being able to hear live testimony from a victim.

That bill passed unanimously in the House and is still pending in the Senate.

Readers can reach Robin Huebner at rhuebner@forumcomm.com. Huebner is also a 5 p.m. news anchor on WDAY-TV.

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