On September 1st, while Texas was dealing with the fallout of Hurricane Harvey, a few small but significant changes happened to the laws of that State.
Most of the reporting was focused on the storm, but several outlets picked up on the fact that laws passed earlier in the year now allowed for openly carrying swords, banned texting while driving, and had several other assorted effects, but one thing that went virtually unreported when it became effective was a small but significant change to the State’s underage drinking laws.
Senate Bill 966 added three sections each to Texas’ laws regarding underage possession of alcohol and underage consumption of the same. These changes grant immunity from violations of either of these statutes for anyone who either is or reports a victim of sexual assault which occurred during such a violation.
At first blush, this sounds pretty reasonable. Nobody wants victims of sexual assault to not come forward out of fear they’ll be ignored and/or fined $500 because they were drinking at the time. However, the devil is in the details, as they say.
There are three groups of people to whom a sexual assault report may be made in order to gain immunity from underage drinking – law enforcement agencies, health care providers, and Title IX coordinators.
It is a crime to make a false report to law enforcement. It is not a crime to make a false report to a Title IX coordinator.
By allowing anyone under the age of 21 to escape prosecution for underage drinking by making a report of sexual assault to a Title IX coordinator, Texas lawmakers have inadvertently created an incentive for college students to do something we never want to see: lie about sexual assault.
Passing the law they did may help sexual assault victims, but several specific clauses also help those who would throw innocent classmates under the bus to protect their reputations or escape punishment for legal transgressions.
The inclusion of Title IX staff in the list of those to whom a report may be made, combined with granting immunity not just to the victims but to anyone who makes a report, except for assailants themselves, gives anyone who wants it a consequence-free pass to lie in order to escape underage drinking charges simply by reporting that they witnessed an assault to someone to whom it is not a crime to lie.
If Texas lawmakers want to keep Title IX coordinators on the list of report recipients, they should stipulate that only victims themselves may make such a report to that group, specify that making a false report to a Title IX coordinator is itself a crime, or both.
That said, it would be better to simply remove the references to Title IX coordinators from these laws. Sexual assault victims should be encouraged to take their reports to law enforcement so violent criminals can be convicted and removed from society, rather than simply barred from college campuses and allowed to victimize others elsewhere. Either way, this law needs some tweaks to for it to properly serve its intended purpose.