It’s been two years since the passage of a North Dakota constitutional amendment meant to assist victims of crime. Since it became law, the state has been working to make it easier for the courts and law enforcement to understand.
Marsy’s Law applies to victims, to the court, to law enforcement, to probation officers, all pieces of the criminal justice system.
At the core it gives freedom of information to the victim of a crime, it protects their privacy, and it requires the perpetrator to pay them full damages if they’re found guilty.
Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer explains, “If I had to break Marsy’s Law down, I would say it would be a privacy issue, a notification issue or information issue, and restitution, or making them whole again.”
But a couple of grey areas remain.
A Victim Witness Coordinators tells me when Marsy’s Law first came to be, their office started getting call after call. People were saying their rights as victims were violated and they wanted to know where to report it.
Well, she says there really isn’t a clear next step for them to take or someone to report it to.
Michelle Dresser-Ternes, a Victim Witness Coordinator with the Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s Office adds, “You can’t sue the government, you can’t sue the prosecutor. So what is the next step?”
The other calls they were getting were from indirect victims of crime, asking for Marsy’s Law rights, including access to confidential information about the crime.
Dresser-Ternes shares, “If you’re in an auditorium and there’s a violent crime committed that you witness, can you be calling and getting information from myself and the other coordinators that I work with on that case because you consider yourself a victim?”
The answer now, is no. Marsy’s law clearly defines the victim as someone who suffers direct or threatened harm.
Lawyer explains, “If there is an assault at a bar and you feel like you’re traumatized by that, does it make you a victim under Marsy’s Law, because you believe you’ve suffered psychological harm from watching a bar fight? I think that’s reading the law too broadly.”
Dresser-Ternes adds, “There is such a thing as an indirect victim, but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to the rights under Marsy’s. You’ve got to be the victim that suffered from that crime.”
One grey area has already been cleared up.
Marsy’s Law originally said nothing about a crime victim getting access to the confidential pre-sentence investigation report. They would have to call a hearing to get it.
But that has been changed, so when the prosecutor receives a copy of the investigation, the victim is entitled to it, as well.
Marsy’s law was added to the constitution in December of 2016, costing North Dakota counties and cities a pretty penny.
Dresser-Ternes explains, “We didn’t have the automated notification system up to date with what it needed. The juvenile court system wasn’t involved in that for notifications, and neither were municipalities. None of the city courts in the whole state were a part of that system.”
Altogether it cost the state $815,000. $500,000 was paid for by the state, and the remaining $315,000 was broken up between cities and counties.
Dresser-Ternes wouldn’t say whether or not Marsy’s law is a positive overall, but she likes a couple of things about it.
For one, if the victim is owed restitution, they get paid before the government.
Dresser-Ternes shares, “I think that’s the way it should be because they’re that loss, or that counseling they’re not able to afford.”
Secondly, parents can speak on behalf of juvenile victims.
While much of the victims’ rights under Marsy’s Law were already a statute, making it law means the victims have rights on the same level as defendants.
We were surprised to find that there is not a statewide database for victims who request data. County courts and police are still keeping individual spreadsheets. So if you make a request to your local police, your State’s Attorney’s office doesn’t know.