CONCORD — Advocates battling domestic violence had plenty to celebrate Monday as Gov. Chris Sununu signed a trio of bills expanding the rights of victims and closing a major loophole in criminal law.
The final action marked an issue on which the Democratic-controlled Legislature and two-term Republican governor found common ground, particularly after Sununu prodded lawmakers last month to reach consensus.
A highly publicized sexual assault case against a former Concord school teacher prompted lawmakers to make it a crime for an educator to have any sexual contact with a student.
Howie Leung, a former Concord special education teacher, was charged in Massachusetts with rape, and fired in New Hampshire after allegations he sexually harassed students here.
“We know that, unfortunately, there are people out there who will use a power disparity to try and take advantage of others,” Sununu said. “This is something that even happens in schools.”
Ana Goble appeared with Sununu at a signing ceremony Monday and said while in middle school, she raised concerns about a teacher’s interactions.
Goble said she was suspended from school for spreading rumors, but the teacher was later arrested for sexual contact.
“It (the bill) ensures the safety of my classmates — and that’s all we ever wanted, for my classmates to be safe, no matter how old they are,” she said in a statement.
Compromise more than a year in making
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said the final legislation took more than a year of work to achieve.
“When a teacher or a coach engages in sexual contact with a student, that is a gross misuse of power,” she said.
The bill (HB 1240) earmarks for domestic violence prevention programs nearly all of an $85 fee to apply for a special license to perform a marriage in the state.
The current $25 fee all goes to the state treasury.
This change will give $80 of the fee for these programs and $5 for Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office to administer it.
Gardner estimates this will generate nearly $80,000 a year for these programs.
Ends time limit on civil lawsuits
A second bill (HB 705) eliminates a statute of limitations for someone to bring a civil lawsuit for damages due to a sexual assault.
Currently, anyone under 18 who is assaulted, must bring suit by age 30 or within three years of remembering that event.
This legislation adds the crime of sexual assault by a spouse if the partner doesn’t consent to the conduct.
Some lawmakers took issue with this provision, maintaining it could be used against a spouse who had sex with a partner suffering from early onset dementia.
It strengthens the rights of victims during and after criminal trials and requires public colleges and universities to have robust programs dealing with sexual assault on campuses.
This bill passed 254-75 in the House and 23-1 in the Senate
The third measure (HB 1645) increases the time violent offenders have to wait before they seek to annul a misdemeanor offense.
“We are thrilled to see the passage of these bills into law and are grateful for the leadership of Governor Sununu as well as for the work of New Hampshire state legislators, survivors, and allies who saw this legislation through to the finish line during this truly unpredictable session,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“This legislation could not be timelier. Expanding vital protections, services, and support, especially amidst this global pandemic, will improve the lives of survivors, who are under incredible pressure and danger due to the fallout of COVID-19,” she said.