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California Bill Would Prohibit Defendants From Questioning Victims

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A state bill aimed at protecting victims in the courtroom may be in conflict with the U.S. Constitution, according to experts.

Under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants have the right to serve as their own attorneys in court.

But should they also be allowed to question their accuser on the witness stand?

Senate Bill 603 by California Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, and backed by San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis would prohibit defendants who represent themselves from cross-examining victims in cases involving a felony sex crime, child abuse, stalking or elder abuse. A court-appointed staff attorney would instead present the defendant’s questions.

Judy Taschner, San Diego County deputy district attorney, said she has seen first-hand a victim who was forced to answer questions by her stalker.

“When she went to court, he had decided to represent himself and she had to go in and answer questions from his mouth,” Taschner told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday. “It was horrible. She couldn’t believe that’s allowed and there’s no other option available.”

Taschner said to give a defendant in a stalking case the ability to question the victim is forcing the victim to relive the experience. She said it’s already difficult for victims to come forth to report crimes, and this could further deter them.

The bill, Taschner said, just offers the courts another option.

“It only applies to the most serious and sensitive crimes,” Taschner said.

However, the bill is on shaky legal footing, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We understand the good intentions behind this bill,” said Natasha Minsker, policy director of the ACLU of Northern California. “Unfortunately the procedure is not consistent with the U.S. Constitution. If a court were to follow this procedure, there’s a likelihood that it will be reversed.”

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