Police can take people into custody for various reasons, and numerous laws limit and define what can happen after. The legislatures and governors of two states recently acted to place one significant new restriction on police-detainee interactions: having sex has been legislated to be taboo, something a detainee cannot legally consent to.
It’s not as though sexual assault by law enforcers is a rare or unknown occurrence. A report by the Cato Institute found it to be second only to use of excessive force in many complaints of police misconduct. An Associated Press probe of the issue published in 2015-most reported form of police misconduct in the U.S., found that around a thousand police officers lost their licenses during the six-year period between 2009 and 2014 for sex-related offenses, and termed that total “unquestionably an undercount,” since not all states routinely made such responses.
In less than a majority of the states, the law has for some time made it a crime for law enforcement officers to have sexual relations with persons in custody. Some of the states that have outlawed police sex with detainees had only moved to protect detainees within the last decade or so: Oregon in 2005, Alaska in 2013, and Arizona in 2015. Even so, at the start of this year, there was no such legal precedent set in 35 states.
This year Kansas and New York joined the states to protect detainees with explicit bans on law enforcement personnel having sexual contact with persons being detained. There are both similarities and differences in the way each state came to join the ranks of states forbidding such relations.
New York had the more shocking story. One mid-September evening last year, two plainclothes New York City detectives in an unmarked van discovered three young people smoking marijuana in a Brooklyn alley. The policemen told the two males in the group to take off, then handcuffed Anna Chambers (an alias), the lone 18-year-old female, in the back of their van and took turns raping her.
After being dropped off on the roadside, she called a friend who took her to a hospital. DNA confirmed the identity of her assailants as a pair of Brooklyn narcotics detectives in their 30’s; they left the force and face trial this fall. Their claim that Anna had consented highlighted New York’s absence of any law which expressly forbids law enforcers having sexual relations with persons they have detained.
By the end of this March, the New York legislature had easily cleared a bill, supported and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, making it legally impossible for a person to consent to sexual relations with a law enforcement officer detaining them.
In Kansas, a recently elected legislator pushed for change after she learned of the New York controversy, and of a wrongly convicted Kansas City man who spent 23 years imprisoned; that case revealed the arresting detective’s long history of threatening local women that they or their relatives would be arrested if his sexual demands were rebuffed. A provision criminalizing law enforcers having sex with persons they detain was added to a package of criminal law revisions moving through the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jeff Colyer this May.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.