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Measure would keep the information assault victims share with advocates private

Anyone who watches TV crime dramas and legal procedurals knows about attorney-client privilege: Defendants can spill their guts to their lawyers without fearing that information will be heard in the courtroom.

Minnesota has similar privileged information laws, for example protecting doctors from being compelled to divulge sensitive information on patients except under very limited circumstances.

But current state law allows information a domestic abuse victim divulges to a domestic abuse advocate to be heard in court if a judge allows it.

Sponsored by Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL-Shoreview), HF3509 would prohibit courtroom disclosure of such information unless a victim consents to it.

“We should make sure that we’re closing that loophole for domestic violence victims and survivors because they deserve it,” she said.

The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee approved the bill, as amended, Thursday and sent it to the House Floor.

Domestic assault advocates are typically social workers connecting with victims in the immediate aftermath of a crime to help them find emergency shelter and other crisis support.

“Our advocates need confidentiality because an advocate-client relationship is built on trust and non-judgmental support,” said Guadalupe Lopez, executive director of Violence Free Minnesota.

She said criminal defense lawyers often try to get at the information a victim shared with an advocate at a time of crisis, looking, for example, for inconsistencies in statements that would help their client’s defense. Or to paint assault victims in a bad light.

“Victim-survivors may use illegal substances both as coping mechanisms, or by force by the abuser,” Lopez said.

Lopez said when a judge compels an advocate to disclose information about a domestic assault victim, the victims can even face criminal charges.

“They may commit crimes of survival like shoplifting or writing a bad check, and these are all things which the victim-survivor may disclose to their advocates,” she said, noting this is one reason why domestic violence goes underreported.

Shauna Kieffer, representing the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, opposes the bill, because it would rob defendants of due process, specifically the right to confront their accuser.

Taking away judicial discretion on the admissibility of statements made to victim advocates “increases the likelihood of wrongful convictions and contravenes a persons’ right to a fair trial and to confront their accuser,” she said.

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