I’m still obsessing about how my university prosecuted a former student of mine for underage drinking after she’d been assaulted. She spontaneously admitted having had two beers many hours before the assault, but the police officer who responded to her call didn’t see any evidence of alcohol, nor did she order a blood test. As I previously argued, the university was wrong to bring charges against her through its internal judicial process. Students who are afraid of being charged with alcohol violations won’t report sexual assault or regular assault. They might not even seek medical care. The university’s actions were shortsighted and disproportionate.
So when I recently met my student’s lawyer, I collared him and asked whether something similar could happen in the real-world court system. He said it could in theory, but it’s unlikely in practice. Police and prosecutors have a strong interest in winning cases. If they charge the victim with a misdemeanor, they might lose her cooperation and fail to convict on the felony. So there’s a strong internal logic that prevents them from going after underage victims who’ve been drinking. The university isn’t subject to the same logic; they see an opportunity to discourage underage drinking, period.
I think his argument makes sense when it comes to my college town. Of course, the police don’t always follow this logic. For instance, there are innumerable cases of sex workers being brought up on prostitution charges when they report violence. This, too, is shortsighted and disproportionate.
The lawyer also saw a hefty dose of victim-blaming in the university’s reaction. “It’s like a girl who was drinking had it coming to her,” he said. I’m confident that no university official would say that out loud. The vast majority would be horrified at the idea. They’d insist that their only motive is to curb underage drinking. And yet, when you routinely prosecute assault victims for underage drinking, you implicitly equate the drinking with the assault. In fact, up to now the possible punishments have been similar. Proposed new rules will make the penalties tougher and more consistent for students who commit sexual assault, but they don’t deal with regular assault, and they also don’t offer amnesty for the victims. That’s not good enough.
Update 6/16/09: In comments, Hydraargyrum points out that the illegality of under-21 drinking will still having a chilling effect on victims reporting, because they don’t know that they’re unlikely to be charged. He’s absolutely right, and I should have said that in the first place! My earlier post did make this point, but it needs to be repeated.