What is Rape Shield Law and What are its Punishments in Maryland?
Rape is sexual violence, and it may cause lifelong trauma for the victim. Unfortunately, incidents of rapes are increasing around the world. Definition of the crime varies across countries and there are laws in all countries to punish the perpetrators of rape.
Statistics indicate that an incident of sexual violence occurs in every two minutes in the United States. Though both males and females encounter incidents of rape, the majority of rape victims are females. It is reported that one out of every six American women is a victim of some form of sexual violence in her lifetime.
Rape is defined in the U.S. as“the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim". As per the definition, perpetrator or the victim may be from any gender. Judicial reforms have taken place to address perennial issues concerning rape cases such as underreporting and low conviction rates.
Why are rape shield laws important?
Rape Shield Laws are enacted to protect rape victims from being questioned about their past sexual history and thereby to help the victims to avoid possible humiliation during any cross-examination. It was found that in trials victims are victimized by the questions from the defense attorney.
Under rape shield laws evidence regarding the victim’s reputation or evidence of past sexual behavior are not admitted. For example, no evidence questioning the moral character of the victim or previous sexual partners can be admitted as per the law.
Rape shield law was expected to bring down the number of unreported rape cases. Michigan was the first U.S. state to pass rape shield law in the year 1974. Soon after most other states followed and enacted rape shield laws. The Violence Against Women act of 1994 created a federal rape shield law in the U.S. and it applies rape shield rules in federal trials.
But rape shield laws are challenged in courts on the ground that it prevents the constitution gives the accused from challenging the accuser and prepare a full legal defense as per the rights. Defendants also claim that rape shield laws violate the constitutional provision of equal protection.
It is also alleged that the law may prevent the accused from getting a fair trial. It is also alleged that women of questionable sexual backgrounds are prone to fabricate charges of rape.
Maryland Rape Shield Law was passed in 1976. But it was acknowledged that the Maryland law was under-inclusive and subsequently many amendments followed.
The law bars the defense from offering any evidence regarding the victim's sexual history but gives the following exceptions:
- Prior sexual activity with the accused.
- If the evidence is of a specific instance of sexual activity which shows the source or origin of semen, pregnancy, disease or trauma.
- If the evidence is offered for impeachment after the prosecutor has put the victim's sexual conduct in issue.
- If there is an ulterior motive of the victim against the accused. The defendant must be able to demonstrate that the evidence is relevant and not prejudicial in nature.
- Possibility of lying by the victim.
Evidence pertaining to the above possibilities may be permitted and the judge will decide it. Also, the trial judge must first consider the evidence in a closed session before a jury is allowed to hear it. Also, it must be ensured that it does not result in humiliation or harassment of the victim.
Constitutionality of Maryland’s rape shield law was challenged in higher courts, but the supreme court refused to review the same.