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Crime & Justice

Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Accusing Austin, Travis County Of Bias In Handling Sexual Assaults

Training at SAFE Alliance in Austin shows police detectives how nurses administer forensic evidence exams for sexual assault survivors.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
SAFE Alliance in Austin trains police detectives how nurses administer forensic evidence exams for sexual assault survivors.

A federal judge has dismissed a class-action lawsuit alleging the Austin Police Department and Travis County District Attorney’s Office mishandled eight women’s sexual assault cases.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2018, claimed that a backlog of rape kits prevented the cases from proceeding quickly and that the District Attorney's Office rarely prosecutes these types of cases. 

The plaintiffs had asked that municipal employees receive training on how to handle sexual assault cases properly and to better communicate to survivors about when their rape kits would be tested. 

Judge Lee Yeakel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas dismissed the case Monday for a number of reasons, including recent changes in state law.

During the last legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed several measures designed to improve how sexual assault cases are investigated and prosecuted in the state. The Austin City Council also passed a resolution hiring an outside investigator to look at how the city investigates these cases. 

The court declined to exercise jurisdiction regarding changes to law enforcement practices and policies. In his ruling, Yeakel wrote, "The passage of the new laws indicates a strong statewide interest in changing the current manner in which municipalities, law enforcement, and prosecutors address sexual assaults in Texas." 

Jenny Ecklund, a lawyer with Thompson & Knight LLP, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement her clients intend to pursue all legal options available to them.

“Of note," she wrote, "Judge Yeakel did not issue a ruling with respect to the majority of the claims (or their substance) based on the premise that he should abstain because survivors and advocates have already been successful in changing laws and policies as a result of the Survivor Plaintiffs’ willingness to shine a light on the issues."

The court also ruled that the county defendants – District Attorney Margaret Moore and former District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg – have prosecutorial immunity for claims against them, since the allegations are based on actions that fell within the scope of their prosecutorial duties.

“This ruling is certainly not a vindication for any of the Defendants or for the systems in Travis County that continue to fail survivors; we hope the Defendants will begin the hard work of listening and trying to make positive change,” Ecklund wrote.

The plaintiffs had also claimed the defendants conspired to deny women equal access to justice and equal protection of the law in how sexual assault cases are handled. The court found they failed to show there was a conspiracy, or that if there were, there wasn’t evidence the conspiracy was to deprive them of their rights. 

Some of the claims could be appealed, repleaded or refiled, depending on the individual ruling for each claim.

In a statement, the City of Austin said it agrees the case should have been dismissed. 

“Regardless of the court’s ruling, though, the City of Austin remains committed to treating all sexual assault survivors with dignity and respect, and will ensure our officers have the appropriate resources and training to investigate all such cases appropriately,” it said.

Moore said the District Attorney's Office was pleased with the ruling and that while the lawsuit was pending, her office had been working with local law enforcement agencies and SAFE Alliance to examine “every aspect of how these cases are reported, investigated and prosecuted.”

“There are systemic issues that existed long before I took office three years ago, but I am so happy we can move forward now to make Travis County a model of reform,” she said in a statement.

Nadia Hamdan and Stephanie Federico contributed to this report.

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