Last summer, Kaylyn Ahn was drinking and acknowledges being “pretty inebriated” when a guy she’d been talking to picked her up to go to a friend’s birthday party.
They never made it to the party. According to Ahn, the man sexually assaulted her in the back seat of his car. Ahn said she “couldn’t have possibly consented in that state.”
Ahn, a first-year student at Northwestern University, stayed silent for months before deciding to file a police report. A week after talking to police in Skokie, where she said the attack happened, she called the department to say she wanted to press charges.
The police told her cases like hers where she was voluntarily intoxicated were extremely hard to prosecute, Ahn said.
“He said, ‘looking at your case, there’s absolutely no way a prosecutor would pick this up,’” said Ahn, 18, of Des Plaines. “I was completely devastated. I had gone through months of mental torture.”
Ahn told her story in a hearing before state legislators in Springfield this spring in support of a bill now on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk that could make it easier to prosecute cases like hers.
Sexual assault cases, especially those like Ahn’s, rarely get their day in court. In Chicago, 80% to 90% of “sexual harm” reports made to the Chicago Police Department from 2010 to 2019 did not result in an arrest, according to a report from the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.
In some instances, that is because Illinois law only states that, if no other means of force or threat are used, an alleged victim impaired by alcohol or drugs is deemed unable to give consent when the alleged attacker administers a substance “causing the victim to become unconscious of the nature of the act and this condition was known.”
The bill, which passed without opposition this spring, aims to make clear that charges can be brought regardless of how the alleged victim became intoxicated or impaired.
“There’s always kind of a negative connotation around alcohol-induced cases, where the survivor themselves was knowingly engaging in drinking, because people are like, ‘Oh, you chose to get drunk,’ ” said Mallory Littlejohn, legal director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. “What they didn’t choose was to be sexually assaulted.”
The legislation covers more than cases involving alcohol, but that is where it will have the greatest impact, advocates said.
Carrie Ward, CEO for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said how someone became intoxicated shouldn’t be a factor in prosecuting sexual assault cases.
“If you became voluntarily intoxicated, it’s still sexual assault,” Ward said. The legislation would change the law so such circumstances do “not automatically throw a case out,” she said.
Anthony Riccio, the Chicago Police Department’s former first deputy superintendent, said as a detective it was “almost impossible” to get charges approved when sexual assault cases where the victim was voluntarily intoxicated,
Prosecutors “rarely” took on such cases because they weren’t a “winning case,” Riccio said, since often no force was used and people tended to blame the victim.
If signed into law, the legislation could hold defendants, largely men, to a higher standard, Riccio said.
“This could be one of those laws that actually changes behavior and protects people, protects women who are in a very vulnerable condition,” Riccio said. “It definitely fills a void in the sexual assault laws.”
The Tribune generally does not name victims of sexual assault, but Ahn gave permission to be identified, in addition to going before legislators with her story in a public hearing.
Ahn, who worked at state Rep. Mark Walker’s office last summer, said she emailed her story to the Arlington Heights Democrat’s office shortly after meeting with police. Meeting several times over winter break, Ahn asked Walker to take legal action. The legislation on Pritzker’s desk was the result.
Walker, the bill’s sponsor, said he was “stunned” to find out Illinois law left a loophole for cases involving voluntary intoxication.
“We just fixed it so it doesn’t matter who caused the person to be intoxicated or unconscious to the act,” Walker said. “What matters is someone took advantage of that and committed a criminal offense.”
In a statement, Pritzker’s office said the governor has prioritized making Illinois a “safer and more compassionate state for victims and survivors.”
Survivors of sexual assault face a lengthy battle if they intend to press charges against their attacker. The legislative changes would eliminate one potential barrier and certainly have the potential to increase the number of sexual assault cases that are charged, Littlejohn said.
Still, existing legal and societal standards often make it difficult for survivors of sexual assault to get justice, advocates said.
“The challenge continues to be living in a society where victims are often blamed, and their behavior is often questioned,” Ward said. “The biggest thing to do is believe sexual assault survivors. People really do, overwhelmingly, have nothing to gain.”
Ahn said testifying before state legislators and getting a bill passed, albeit scary, was “really rewarding,” both for her and future survivors who won’t have to go through what she did with police.
“It would be naive for me to say that with this law, everything’s gonna be perfect and the legal system is fixed,” Ahn said. “That would be impossible.
“But it was a way for me to take back my autonomy,” she said.
Survivors of sexual assault can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the Chicago rape crisis hotline at 888-293-2080. To find a rape crisis center near you, go to www.icasa.org/crisis-centers.
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