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Fallout From Richmond High Rape May Lead to Change in Witness Law

By Anna Bloom
New York Times Bay Area Blog
November 18, 2009

Last night, the city of Richmond honored Margarita Vargas, the young woman who called 911 to report the gang rape of a girl outside of Richmond High School’s homecoming. Tonight, she will be honored by the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Amid the celebrations of Ms. Vargas’ actions—she was the only person who called 911 say police—is a rebuke of the 10 or so bystanders that police say witnessed or heard about the two-hour-long attack but did not call police. Some of the witnesses have said they were scared. Six people have been charged in connection to the rape.

While there is a law requiring that witnesses report a serious crime against anyone 14-years-old and younger, the law does not apply in the Richmond case because the victim is 16.

State Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, who represents northern Contra Costa County, is exploring how to expand that law to raise the age to 16 or 18, and potentially alter it to include any person physically harmed on a school campus. He was the author of the Sherrice Iverson Child Victim Protection Act in 2000.

“In our world today there’s so much anonymity, people don’t know each other and they are reluctant to get involved in other people’s business,” Mr. Torlakson said. “They have to be reminded of their responsibility to people who are in trouble.”

State Sen. Leland Yee, who represents portions of San Francisco and San Mateo counties, is also looking into how to change the law to address the age limit issue.

“My office is still researching a number of legislative remedies and we have not ruled out amending the law to include crimes committed against people of all ages. That said, crime statistics indicate that children under age 18 represent a disproportionate number of sexual and violent crime victims, so providing them additional protections is more than just appropriate, it’s our obligation.”

Mr. Torlakson said that his office is currently researching the effectiveness of the original act, working with the California District Attorneys Association, schools and police officers throughout the state to compile data and analysis.

The Sherrice Iverson Child Victim Protection Act requires witnesses “to murder, rape or lewd conduct with an under-14-year-old” to report the incident or face a misdemeanor charge with a fine up to $1,500 and in some cases, a sentence of up to six months in jail.

Officer Mark Gagan, a spokesman for the Richmond police department, supports the idea:

What it does, effectively, is to change the status of everyday people to mandated reporters - doctors, teachers, principals of schools, etc. When they are overseeing children 14 and younger, the law says they have a societal obligation to protect them. In essence, what it says is youth and children are vulnerable and people in society need to protect them. As we saw with our victim, who is 16, there is still vulnerability and innocence. Judging from the amount of community outcry, I feel that doing nothing in witnessing this crime is condemnable and should also be illegal. Every law creates an authority, and when used appropriately, gives law enforcement a tool to use in an investigation like this one.

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