Juveniles who sexually assault unconscious victims could be tried as adults under proposed California legislation brought in response to the suicide of a 15-year-old girl who was sexually battered while passed out at a party then humiliated by photos circulated to classmates.
The amendment was announced Friday as part of a package of legal changes brought by state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose. It seeks to close a loophole that makes it a less serious crime to rape someone who is unconscious or mentally incapacitated than someone who is of a clear mind.
"In general Audrie's Law creates a new crime of cyber bullying," Beall said.
The cyberbullying statute would make it a felony to share obscene or sexual photos of young people or their body parts on social media or smartphones to harass or bully them.
"To me, whether you rape someone or ply them with alcohol and then rape them, they're both disgusting and despicable acts which I think should be handled in adult court,'' said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who helped draft the legislation.
In 2012, Audrie Pott fell asleep after drinking Gatorade laced with alcohol at a friend's party in their hometown of Saratoga. She awoke to find her pants off and lewd comments scribbled over her body.
Her family says she hanged herself days later after learning cellphone photos of her taken during the assault were circulated.
"My life is ruined,'' she wrote on her Facebook page. "The whole school knows.''
Flanked by large photos of her daughter, Audrie's mother, Sheila Pott, said the changes are critical to cracking down on assaults and cyberbullying among teens.
"We don't want to lose any more of our children to this epidemic,'' she said.
Pott stressed that if the perpetrators, three of Audrie's teenage classmates, had been tried as adults, their cases would have been public and the consequences more severe. Instead the three were prosecuted in private juvenile proceedings and sentenced to between 30 and 45 day in juvenile hall. Two continue to attend Saratoga High, while the third transferred to high school about an hour south in Gilroy.
Exposing the teens' identity "would deter future incidents and put the community on alert to monitor the students' behavior,'' Pott said. The Potts are suing the teens and their families.
Attorney Sue Burrell at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center said the proposed legislation is misguided and overly broad.
"This is a tragic, tragic case, but this is not going to be a deterrent,'' she said.
Burrell said treating juveniles like adults will mean long prison sentences. When the offenders are released, "they're going to be in their 20s or 30s absolutely ill-equipped to function in society,'' she said.
Burrell said officials should instead find targeted interventions for teens to set them on a better path.
But Beall said Friday he expects to get the necessary two-thirds vote from the Legislature, and he hopes the law takes effect Jan. 1.
"What happened to Audrie must not happen again,'' he said.
NBC Bay Area's Marianne Favro contributed to this report.