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Rape by impersonation

Fixing a 19th century rape law is something that Sacramento's legislators, who are normally too quick to submit bills, would be justified in doing fast.

January 07, 2013
  • California lawmakers responded immediately to Wednesday's ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal that a man impersonating a woman's boyfriend could not be convicted of rape. Above: California's Capitol building in Sacramento.
California lawmakers responded immediately to Wednesday's ruling… (Robert Greene / Los Angeles…)

The first day for California lawmakers to introduce bills in the new two-year session was Dec. 3, the day they took their oaths. The Legislature then immediately recessed for the holidays and did not reconvene until this week, but through December the desk remained open for bills to be submitted, and there are now hundreds that will be scheduled for hearing, examined by the Legislative Analyst's Office, or quietly killed by Assembly or Senate leadership.

There are, of course, always some new challenges that require new policies. But lawmakers spend too much time pushing unnecessary or counterproductive legislation that is introduced to curry favor with special interests or to respond to a sensational headline. One of the worthy goals of Proposition 31, which was defeated in November, was to encourage the Legislature to spend more of its time on oversight of the state bureaucracy and less time churning out bills.

But no simple line can be drawn ahead of time between carefully crafted policy updates and gratuitouslegislative responses to the latest viral outrage. Take, for example, the lawmakers who responded immediately to Wednesday's ruling by California's 2nd District Court of Appeal that a man impersonating a woman's boyfriend could not be convicted of rape.

This was a case of alleged rape by stealth, with a man in darkness having sex with a woman who apparently thought he was her boyfriend, until the light of day revealed him to be someone else. Except it was not rape, the court ruled, because California laws crafted more than a century ago deemed such an act of impersonation to be rape only when committed upon a married woman, not a single woman.

It's easy to imagine a lawmaker thundering, "There ought to be a law," introducing a bill and hoping to ride a wave of public support. In this case, though, it's no mere publicity stunt. There's a role for lawmakers here. There ought to be a law that protects people from this kind of invasion, punishes perpetrators and updates a 19th century approach that somehow slipped through the cracks.

Much of the legislative session just now beginning in earnest will, let's hope, be devoted to fixing the state's dysfunction and improving life for all Californians, and not simply cranking the bill mill. But some bills are needed, and even if too many seem geared toward headlines rather than good policy, there are times, like this one, when the two goals come together.

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