Working for Justice

Legal Options for Victims of Crime

Posted November 12th, 2021 by Christine Dunn in Victims' Rights.

Victims of crime are often completely overwhelmed. Not only are they navigating the emotional and physical impact of the crime on their lives but they are also faced with uncertainty about their legal options. Victims of crime, including sexual assault survivors, regularly come to us soon after the crime happened. Often the first question they ask is: “now what do I do?” Frequently crime victims do not realize that there is an array of different legal avenues they can pursue in both the criminal and civil justice systems.

First, any victim of a crime can report the crime to the police and initiate the criminal process. The police will investigate the allegations, generally collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses. If the police believe there is adequate corroboration of the allegations, they will present the case to the prosecutor. Depending on the nature of the crime, the case might be presented to either a local, state, or federal prosecutor. The prosecutor then makes the decision about whether to charge the perpetrator and proceed with the prosecution.

In a criminal proceeding, it is the government – not the victim – who brings the case and ultimately makes the decisions about how the case proceeds. However, victims of crime also have rights in the criminal case. Under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3771, crime victims have the right, among other things: (1) to privacy, (2) to be reasonably protected from the accused; (3) to receive notice of court proceedings and other important events in the case, including plea offers; (4) to be heard at the plea, sentencing and parole hearings; and (5) to receive restitution. While the Crime Victims’ Rights Act is a federal statute, most states have analogous state statutes that offer similar rights to crime victims. A crime victim may wish to retain a lawyer to assist them in asserting these rights and ensuring adequate protections throughout the criminal process.

Second, regardless of the outcome in the criminal proceeding, a crime victim can pursue a civil suit against the perpetrator. This option is available even if the prosecutor declined to bring charges or the perpetrator was found not guilty in the criminal trial. In a criminal case the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, in a civil suit, the burden of proof is the much less stringent “preponderance of the evidence,” which means that a juror must find only that the allegations are more likely than not. For example, a sexual assault survivor might pursue a civil claim against the perpetrator for civil assault/battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress. The specific cause of action depends on the nature of the crime and the jurisdiction. The advantage of a civil suit is that, if the case settles, the victim may be able to get the perpetrator to agree to non-monetary concessions such as a written apology or taking anger management or sexual assault awareness trainings. The downside of a civil suit against an individual perpetrator is that, even if the survivor is successful in the civil suit, the defendant may not have sufficient assets to pay the judgment. In that case, collection of the judgment may be difficult or even impossible.

Another option available to crime victims is to pursue a civil action against the institution that allowed the crime to occur. For example, countless victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests have pursued civil suits against the Catholic Church for allowing priests with known sexual predilections to have access to children. Similarly, an individual who was sexually abused by a teacher or a coach might bring a civil suit against the school or the school district for failure to adequately screen or supervise the teacher or coach. If the victim succeeds in the civil suit, the institution is more likely to have sufficient assets to cover the judgment. Furthermore, institutions often have insurance policies that cover the conduct of their employees, sometimes even for intentional acts such as sexual abuse.

The victims’ rights lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp can help you in navigating the criminal and civil justice systems and assist you in determining what avenue is right for you.

Christine Dunn is Co-Chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group and a Partner in the firm’s Washington, DC office. Ms. Dunn’s practice involves a range of matters, including criminal/sexual violence cases, whistleblower/qui tam matters, and employment discrimination actions.
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