November 30, 2023

New York’s Adult Survivors Act Combats Sexual Offenses by Offending the Principles of Justice

Wrongfully accused individuals may be caught in the crossfire.

Beneath the surface of many legislative acts with good intentions, there often lurks a sinister reality. This is frequently the consequence of lawmakers’ failure to courageously confront and consider the potential adverse effects of their policies. This can manifest in many different ways: For instance, a legislator might overlook the few instances where their law could fail, or they may succumb to external political pressures, opting for silence over scrutiny.

The Adult Survivors Act, a landmark law passed in New York, is a prime example of a well-intentioned law turned ugly as a result of its sponsor failing or refusing to consider its negative ramifications.

The Adult Survivors Act is simple: It establishes a one-year time period in which people who endured sexual offenses are permitted to sue their abusers. At first glance, this seems to be a step in the right direction. After all, it is well-documented that, for various reasons, victims of sexual assault generally remain silent when they are abused. This is why, on its face, the Adult Survivors Act is a persuasive law. However, a closer examination of the unintended — or perhaps intended — consequences of the law reveal that this law makes a mockery of the principles of justice.

To start, let’s consider the fact that this applies to every person who has ever stepped foot in New York state. It does not matter whether you live right next door in New Jersey, all the way across the country in California or oceans away across the world in Australia. It does not even matter if you have never stepped foot in New York. The act makes it so if someone claims you committed sexual assault in New York years ago, you could be compelled to return to New York to mount a defense.

This is particularly concerning when you consider the lack of evidence that would exist in an older case. Sexual assault generally occurs behind closed doors; so, even in a new case evidence is scant, but at least the recollections of the people and any evidence from after the fact to disprove the assault would still be preserved. Add the passage of time into the mix, and the challenges compound.

A person accused of a sexual offense may find themselves at a loss to remember where they were during the day or time of the alleged crime, and they may dispute the nonconsensual nature of the encounter. And what if there was evidence in the past proving their alibi, or that the encounter was consensual, like a letter, email, photograph or witness? Odds are, they’re gone now.

We must keep in mind that the dispositive question in a sexual offense case is whether the encounter was consensual. Consider a person who enters into a legal sexual encounter under the assumption that it was consensual, using affirmative verbal and nonverbal cues. Now imagine, two decades later, they face allegations of nonconsensual sex. What memory could they possibly draw upon to credibly attest to the consensual nature of that past encounter? What if they have had numerous encounters with other women in the past and didn’t remember it? Is it enough for them to say that they are a good person and that they would never commit a sexual offense against another person? Obviously not.

Now, we’ve witnessed several public figures, including renowned individuals like musician Sean Combs and New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams, face allegations of sexual assault under the Adult Survivors Act. Their guilt or innocence remains uncertain. Yet, an important question arises: Would they even know themselves if they did it? Eric Adams was accused of sexually assaulting someone 30 years ago. Sean Combs, 32 years ago. How could someone possibly remember an encounter from so long ago? Allowing someone to bring forward a lawsuit so old is dangerous for all of the foregoing reasons.

Sex abusers deserve to be sued for every dollar of theirs; they deserve to rot in prison, too. But this isn’t about the ones who have actually committed these heinous acts, and who are actually guilty of them. This is about the potential liability for those wrongfully accused individuals who may be caught in the crossfire, alleged to have committed one of the most egregious offenses a person can commit and find themselves without the means to defend themselves.


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