Making Rape-by-Impersonation a Felony

State Assembly Approves Bill Prompted by Santa Barbara Sexual Assault

The California State Assembly unanimously approved a measure on Monday that closes an odd loophole in rape-by-impersonation laws. The bill, if signed by Governor Jerry Brown, will allow prosecutors to charge anyone who coerces a victim into sexual activity by impersonating someone known to the victim with felony rape. The existing law only allows people impersonating a spouse to be charged with a felony, with lesser charges for those merely impersonating a lover or someone else to instigate sexual activity.

“Typically you see this type of crime on college campuses,” said District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who first spearheaded the measure in 2011. She added that not all cases involve alcohol or drugs.

Dudley first brought the issue to San Luis Obispo Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian, after an incident in Santa Barbara County in 2009 in which a male accuser broke into a home on N. Quarantina Street, where a woman, Courtney Wettach, who was sober, had been asleep in her own bed. The intruder passed her sleeping boyfriend on the couch, entered the victim’s bedroom, and got into bed with Wettach. He proceeded to instigate sexual activity with her by impersonating her boyfriend.

The suspect was later caught, but unable to be prosecuted for felony rape, simply because the perpetrator impersonated Wettach’s boyfriend, and not her husband. Although the accuser ultimately received an 18-year prison sentence for several other crimes, Dudley could not prosecute him for felony rape.

Dudley estimated that a few cases of rape-by-impersonation occur every year. She said this type of rape is probably especially underreported because of the confusing and embarrassing nature of the situation. Dudley clarified that the bill does not allow a person to retroactively claim they were raped if he or she consented to sex with someone who pretended to be a person unknown to the victim, like a celebrity.

State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, one of the 71 members of the Senate and Assembly who co-authored the bill, said in a statement, “This bills updates the current law to better reflect the modern society we live in.” Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal (Long Beach) and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (Los Angeles) were other key advocates.

“It is unconscionable that in 2013, a rape prosecution hinges on whether or not the victim is married,” Achadjian said in a statement. He added he is pleased that we “are on track to closing this outdated loophole.”

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