In the US, a person who is accused of a crime has constitutional rights. They are offered the services of a public defender if they cannot afford their own lawyer. But a person who reports a crime actually has fewer legal protections, and no attorney to represent them directly. If you or someone else reports your sexual trauma to the law, what rights and protections do you have?
(I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice.)
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Victimlaw.org–Victims’ Rights comprehensive overview of victim rights
Every state is different. Start here to get information for your state or tribal system: State Support | Office for Victims of Crime
Here are some rights that victims have in almost every state.
To be notified and be present at all the defendant’s court appearances
To be protected against intimidation and retaliation
To consult with the prosecutor handling the case
To have their identity kept private
In sexual assault cases, to be protected against questioning regarding irrelevant sexual information
To receive compensation, counseling or other services related to the consequences of the crime
To make a statement at some court proceedings, such as sentencing, parole or probation decisions
To be notified when the offender is arrested, released, or deceased
To be notified of the offender’s STD test results if there was possible transmission
In many cases, the victim must tell the prosecutor’s office that they want to exercise these rights--for example, to be notified of court appearances or to make a victim impact statement at sentencing.
In criminal court, the prosecuting attorney is actually representing the government, not you the victim. Usually they work closely with you and consult you on important decisions--such as whether to charge, whether to offer a plea deal, etc. But they are not required to follow your wishes. Also, a prosecutor cannot send someone to prison or put them on the sex offender registry. The prosecutor instead argues the case through the criminal justice process. The defendant needs to plead guilty to a crime, or be found guilty by a jury, to be sentenced to prison and/or to be required to register as a sex offender.
You may start a case against someone who has harmed you in civil court. The standard of proof to decide a case in your favor is lower in civil court. They can award damages--money or other kinds of restitution--but cannot convict anyone of a crime or place them on the sex offender registry.
An attorney can directly represent you in civil court, but you have to find and hire the attorney yourself. Often the attorney doesn’t require payment unless they win the case and you get a monetary settlement. But this means they will not take your case unless they expect you can win. You are usually not charged for an initial meeting, where they decide whether or not to take your case. The other party would also have to hire their own attorney, as there are no public defenders for civil cases.
Siblings Too Podcast: Nancy discusses aspects of criminal and civil law, including the unfortunate concerns of victims being sued for defamation when they speak out, with Carmen Baru, Civil Litigation Lawyer in Ottawa, Canada. The Law and Sibling Sexual Abuse: Part I (35 min) and Part II (40 min) note: legalities discussed are specific to Canada