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We’re all familiar with the rights afforded to crime suspects. But what about the victims? They get rights, too; they just don’t make for compelling TV.
“Generally, victims’ rights are constitutional, statutory, and rule-based provisions that ensure survivors are able to be active participants in the criminal justice process rather than merely witnesses to or evidence in that process,” says Meg Garvin, clinical professor of law and executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute.
Rights Vary Depending Where You Live
Victims’ rights vary by jurisdiction, mostly in when and how victims’ rights apply. In some states, victims’ rights are only afforded to victims of violent crimes, while rights in other states apply no matter the crime type. Some states require victims “opt in” by requesting their rights, while victims’ rights in other states are granted automatically. But most jurisdictions offer the same basic protections.
“Increasingly, states are following the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act [CVRA], which was passed in 2004, and are putting these same rights or concepts into their constitutions,” Garvin says. There are eight rights in the CVRA which victims can, and should, take advantage of when their domestic violence case goes to court.
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- The right to be reasonably protected from the accused. This one refers to having separate waiting areas and/or report times for court. It does not afford police protection in your home or elsewhere.
- The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public court proceeding, or any parole proceeding, involving the crime or of any release or escape of the accused. Court staff will notify you of court proceedings, but you’ll need to remember to update the court anytime your contact information changes so they can do so.
- The right not to be excluded from any such public court proceeding, unless the court, after receiving clear and convincing evidence, determines that testimony by the victim would be materially altered if the victim heard other testimony at that proceeding. This means you have the right to be present during court proceedings unless the judge thinks hearing other witness testimony might alter your perception of the incident, in which case the judge might have you sequestered until after you give your testimony.
- The right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding. This gives you the option to provide a written victim impact statement or to speak in court prior to the judge deciding on a punishment.
- The reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the government in the case. This gives you the right to meet with the prosecutor about your case.
- The right to full and timely restitution as provided in law. Restitution is payment to cover the costs the victim incurred related to the crime. Restitution may be awarded for medical bills, counseling costs, lost wages, stolen property and more. Think of restitution as reimbursement. It does not cover “pain and suffering” or other damages. Those are handled in civil court.
- The right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay. Victims have the right to speedy trials, too. Unfortunately, case backlogs and staffing issues mean courts must take liberty with the term “unreasonable delay.”
- The right to be treated with fairness and with respect for the victim’s dignity and privacy. This one shouldn’t have to be stated, but it does.
Limitations of the Law
Victims' rights are an important set of guidelines for helping survivors of domestic violence be heard and considered during court proceedings. But, they’re not perfect.
Victims’ rights don’t take effect until an arrest is made. If your abuser isn’t arrested, victims’ right don’t apply.
You also must be listed as the victim in the police report in order to invoke your rights. If your abuser is charged with crimes of which you are not the victim, you won’t benefit. For example, let’s say your abuser shows up at your workplace and begins threatening you on your way to your car. Your employer sees the interaction through the window and calls the police, but they are unable to develop probable cause to arrest your abuser for the threats because they were verbal and none of the witnesses heard what was said. The police tell your abuser to leave, but he returns a short time later and is subsequently arrested for trespassing. In this case, your employer would be the victim and so victims’ rights wouldn’t apply to you.
When victims’ rights do apply, they must be adhered to. If they’re not, you can petition the court to order an agency to grant you your rights. Many states also have a designated ombudsman or board whose job it is to investigate and resolve victims’ rights violations. Contact your victim advocate if you think your rights are being violated.
Victim advocates are great resources and will help you navigate the court process. Still, the proceedings are going to be stressful. Prepare yourself by reading “6 Tips for Facing Your Abuser in Court.”
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