The Arizona Senate ground to a halt Tuesday as attorneys, secretaries and senators flipped through rule books trying to determine if a senator who had his microphone silenced for speaking off topic could refuse to vote.
Sen. Paul Boyer, who’s already declared he won’t vote for a budget until the Legislature acts on his bill giving child sex abuse victims more time to sue their assailants, convinced fellow senators to kill a bill prioritized by House Speaker Rusty Bowers that would let some sex offenders caught in police stings petition to have their names removed from the registry.
“I’m a little confused,” Boyer said. “I don’t know how we can vote for a bill that allows criminals to get off the sex offender list when they’re soliciting sex from undercover police officers when we’re not doing anything for victims of childhood sexual abuse.”
While Tuesday’s vote on the sex offender registry bill demonstrated what Boyer describes as strong support for his bill if it ever gets a vote, it also marked the latest incident in a bitter spat between Boyer and Eddie Farnsworth, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who didn’t hear Boyer’s bill.
The two used the pretense of explaining their votes on unrelated bills to dispute each other’s descriptions of why the measure didn’t get a hearing. Boyer said Farnsworth agreed to his bill and then walked back the agreement, while Farnsworth contends he misunderstood what Boyer was asking for and corrected himself as soon as Senate staff explained it to him.
“I’ve explained this over and over and over again to my colleague, who continues to present it in an unfortunate light,” Farnsworth said. “In contracts and agreements, if you don’t have a meeting of the minds, you don’t have an agreement.”
By the third bill Boyer rose to speak on, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, ruled him out of order and cut off his microphone.
‘The issue here is we are using each one of these bills to keep doing the same thing over and over again, and that is not the way we do things here,” Fann said.
Boyer then refused to vote on the bill, saying he wouldn’t vote because he was being silenced, just like victims of child sexual abuse. He called on the rest of the senators to override Fann’s ruling that he was out of order, sending the chamber into disarray until he withdrew his motion about 20 minutes later.
Several Senate Democrats sided with Boyer, saying they haven’t seen lawmakers stopped from explaining their votes before. Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, said she and others were heartbroken when the bill was pulled from the Judiciary Committee’s agenda earlier this year, and they’ll talk about it when they can.
“The reason some of us are making a big fuss is we were devastated when it was not heard,” she said.
Boyer is asking for victims to have seven years after they realize they were assaulted to sue their assailants and anyone who helped hide the abuse. Arizona law now gives victims just until age 20 — two years after they turn 18 — to sue.
That’s the same as the statute of limitations for other civil cases, Boyer said. And it’s a far cry from other neighboring states. Utah, for instance, eliminated its statute of limitations in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“What that means practically is a person who slips on a banana peel at the mall falls under the same statute as a child victim of sexual abuse,” Boyer said.
Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, told lawmakers she was raped by her grandfather as a young child and it took her years to realize she could have reported him. Child victims need time to come to terms with their abuse, she said.
“Even as a young adult, I thought maybe it was my fault somehow,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I realized I was not his only victim. He had so many other people, other victims, that he had destroyed their lives.”
Victims have plenty of time to seek justice through criminal charges, Farnsworth said. He said he would have been willing to raise the age at which victims must file civil suits to 25 or even 27, but he thinks there should be some limits on civil cases.
“At some point, we have to protect the innocent people who can be accused and have no way to protect themselves because it’s been 50 years since the accused malfeasance,” he said.
Sen. Heather Carter, who urged Boyer to speak more about his bill later in the afternoon, said she shared his concerns about the statute of limitations.
While there is no limit on when criminal charges can be filed in child sex abuse cases, victims need access to civil litigation as well, she said.
“We need to give the child victim of sexual abuse the time that they need to come forward, and that will require a civil action, not just a criminal action,” Carter said. “When a child comes forward as an adult to expose horrific abuse, that now-adult is saving future victims.”
Carter said she also had concerns about the substance of Bowers’ bill.
Existing Arizona law allows registered sex offenders who were 22 or younger when they had sexual contact with a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old to petition to be removed from the sex offender registry. Bowers’ bill would have extended that to people who were 22 or younger when they were caught soliciting sex from a police officer posing as a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old.
Offenders who wanted off the registry would have had to wait to petition until they were 35 and could not have been convicted of more than one crime.
Supporters of Bowers’ bill, including Sen. Rick Gray, said they wanted to give young people who have made mistakes and repented for them a chance to get off the registry.
“I can almost hear the headlines now,” the Sun City Republican said. “It makes it look like those people who voted for this bill don’t care about the victims. I’m voting for this bill because I do care about that individual who made a huge mistake as a young person and has now rectified it.”
Fann voted against the bill, but she said her vote had nothing to do with Boyer’s points. Instead, she voted against it for the same reason she held it back from a vote when it first came before the Senate: former Rep. David Stringer, who resigned in disgrace from the House after lawmakers learned that he had previously been arrested for alleged child sex abuse.
“Because of incidents that had happened in the House with a member over there and because of the timing of this, I cannot support this at this time,” she said. “It pains me not to support the speaker.”