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USN Ends Victim Liability for Minor Misconduct in Sexual Assault Cases

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A U.S. Navy court room (USN file image)

Published Jul 3, 2022 10:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has implemented a major change in its disciplinary policy in order to encourage reporting by victims of sexual assault. In some cases, the act of making a report would implicate the victim in misbehavior of their own - for example, drinking, curfew violations or other minor infractions - and the victim has an incentive to stay silent in order to avoid punishment. The Navy has decided to remove this incentive structure: effective immediately, Navy personnel will no longer face disciplinary action for minor misconduct associated with a sexual assault (collateral misconduct). 

“Collateral misconduct by the victim of a sexual assault is one of the most significant barriers to reporting because of the victim’s fear of punishment,” said Andrea Goldstein, assistant director, Department of the Navy Force Resiliency. “We’re committed to removing barriers to reporting, restoring victim’s trust, and improving victim care.”

The "collateral misconduct" conundrum exists in all sectors. A recent case from the U.S. merchant fleet provides a clear example: The most shocking incident of shipboard sexual assault reported in recent years, the "Midshipman-X" incident, occurred after an officer allegedly urged the victim to drink to the point of unconsciousness. The act of drinking put her in violation of academy rules and Coast Guard licensing policy, but she reported the incident anyways, putting her career at risk by admitting that she had consumed alcohol on board. 

Under the Navy's new rules, this kind of minor misconduct will not put a sailor or cadet at risk if they make an unrestricted report of sexual assault through the appropriate channels. Commanding officers will assess whether the misconduct occurred in the context of a sexual assault and examine the circumstances. If they determine that the collateral misconduct is minor, the victim will not be disciplined.

Examples of minor misconduct could include underage drinking at or near the time of the sexual assault; an unprofessional relationship with the accused; or a violation of curfews, off-limit locations, school standards or barracks policies.

"Removing this barrier empowers victims and survivors - they should not have to choose whether to implicate themselves by reporting a crime committed against them," said Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.