PA’s Rape Shield Law Only Applies to Sex Offenses

Filed under: Sex Crimes by Contributor @ February 24, 2016

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On February 19th, 2016, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania decided the case of Commonwealth v. Schley, No.124 WDA 2015, holding that Pennsylvania’s Rape Shield Law does not bar the admission of prior false sexual assault allegations made by the complainant as evidence in a trial for Endangering the Welfare of Children.

The defendant, Schley, and her husband are the aunt and uncle and adoptive parents of the complainant. The complainant testified that while she was a minor and living at Schley’s residence, Schley’s husband repeatedly forced her to touch him sexually. The complainant asserted that she went to Schley with these accusations more than once, but each time this happened, Schley would ask her husband if the accusations were true, and when he answered that they were not, Schley did nothing and declined to call the police. Given the fact that the girl had already made three false accusations prior to this, was it unreasonable for the woman not to call police on her own husband?

Eventually, the Commonwealth charged Schley with Endangering the Welfare of Children (EWOC), which is graded as a first-degree misdemeanor. Prior to the start of her trial, Schley filed a motion in limine, seeking to introduce evidence that complainant had previously made three separate false accusations of sexual assault, all of which she recanted after investigations revealed that she had fabricated the accusations. However, the trial court denied Schley’s motion in limine, ruling that Pennsylvania’s Rape Shield Law (RSL) barred her from introducing the false sexual assault allegations as evidence. Schley’s case then proceeded to a non-jury trial, at which complainant was the Commonwealth’s only witness. At trial, Schley was convicted of EWOC and sentenced to three years of probation. Soon thereafter, Schley filed a Notice of Appeal, arguing that the trial court committed reversible error by relying on the RSL to exclude the evidence of the complainant’s prior false sexual assault allegations when the evidence was material to a number of issues in the case.

The RSL provides, among other things, that specific instances of the alleged victim’s past sexual conduct are not admissible as evidence in a prosecution. A main purpose of the RSL is to prevent a trial from shifting its focus from the culpability of the accused towards the virtue and chastity of the victim. Schley argued that according to its statutory language, the RSL does not apply to EWOC cases and the trial court consequently erred in barring the admission of complainant’s prior false allegations as evidence. Schley further argued that even if the RSL applied to her case, then the evidence still should not have been barred because it didn’t concern complainant’s past sexual conduct. Lastly, Schley argued that the prohibited evidence was relevant and material to her case, which is a necessary condition for false sexual assault allegations to be admitted under the traditional rules of evidence.

The Superior Court agreed with Schley’s arguments on all three issues. After analyzing the construction of the RSL, the Court held that the statutory language expressly states that it only applies to crimes under Chapter 31 of the Crimes Code (concerning sexual offenses), while the sole charge against Schley was EWOC, which is part of Chapter 43 (concerning offenses against the family). Thus, the RSL did not apply. Next, relying on a PA Supreme Court decision, the Court agreed with Schley that even if the RSL did apply to EWOC, the district court still should not have denied her motion in limine because the complainant’s past sexual assault allegations did not concern her past sexual conduct in a way that would affect her reputation for chastity. Lastly, the Court ruled that the prohibited evidence was in fact relevant and material to the case because complainant’s false allegations were probative of an element of the offense as well as the complainant’s credibility as a witness. The evidence of false allegations would directly affect Schley’s state of mind in responding to what she might have perceived as another in a series of false sexual assault allegations made by complainant. In other words, Schley may not have possessed the mens rea necessary to sustain her conviction if she was not aware that complainant was actually in circumstances which threatened her well-being. Further, the false allegations were relevant to complainant’s credibility as a witness whose testimony was the only evidence presented by the Commonwealth against Schley. Ultimately, the Court held that the trial court erred in denying Schley’s motion in limine, and this denial prejudiced Schley by affecting her overall theory of defense and trial strategy. Accordingly, the Court vacated Schley’s sentence and remanded the case to the lower court.

In summary, the RSL only applies to crimes under Chapter 31 of the Crimes Code, and thus was wrongfully utilized in an EWOC case. Next, the RSL applies only to evidence of an alleged victim’s past sexual conduct, and false sexual assault allegations are not considered sexual conduct. Last, the prohibited evidence was relevant and material to the case to the point that it affected the defendant’s defense strategy, and thus the judgment had to be vacated.

If you would like to read the Superior Court’s opinion in its entirety, click here.

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