SACRAMENTO — Today, AB 341, Assemblymember Boerner Horvath’s bill to strengthen a sexual assault victim’s right to privacy by applying the same rules of evidence for social media as other forms of evidence, made it out of both houses of the State Legislature and is now headed to the Governor’s desk.
Increasingly in sexual assault cases, decades of social media activity irrelevant to the details of the case is being mined and admitted into evidence, often with the result of embarrassing, shaming, or humiliating a victim to the point of discouraging their testimony. AB 341 simply requires that social media content go through the same process as other types of evidence covered under existing Rape Shield Laws.
“In a world shaped by the constantly evolving realities of online life, we need to make sure our judicial system is keeping up,” said Assemblymember Boerner Horvath. “We know that in many sexual assault cases, the defense is digging through the victim’s social media history, just like evidence regarding character, morality, and sexual history were used before our state’s Rape Shield Laws. It’s time for judges to screen social media evidence in the same way, and I’m glad to see this bill so close to becoming law.”
Since its passage in 1974, the California Rape Shield Law has been repeatedly amended to account for evolving technology and other factors impacting the types of material and information being submitted in sexual assault cases that require the defense to prove relevancy before being admitted as evidence. AB 341 still allows the defense to admit social media material – it simply expands the Rape Shield Law to require that the defense must file the same sort of written motion for a court ruling on relevancy if the content does not contain a statement, image, video, or picture of the alleged offense.
“The Rape Shield Law was originally designed to protect rape survivors from unfair intrusions into their private life” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, the sponsor of the bill. “Now, in 2021, in light of expanding digital socialization, it’s become apparent those original protections are no longer sufficient. This bill provides the updates necessary to continue to protect survivors of sexual assault who must now endure attempts to reach into their social media accounts to unfairly attack their credibility in court.”
"In sexual assault cases, defense attorneys have turned to mining social media accounts of sexual assault victims to discover information that can be used against the victim during trial,” said Betsy Butler, Executive Director of the California Women’s Law Center. “AB 341 will protect the privacy of the victim and reduce blatant attempts to embarrass, shame or discourage a victim from testifying against their perpetrator. The California Women’s Law Center prioritizes ensuring survivors of sexual assault have access to all avenues of justice available to them, and for that reason, we support AB 341.”
AB 341 is supported by District Attorneys throughout the state and a variety of victims’ advocacy organizations. It now awaits the Governor’s signature, and if signed, will become law next year.