Four women filed a class-action lawsuit Monday accusing Austin and Travis County law enforcement of mishandling their sexual assault cases because of gender discrimination. A similar lawsuit filed by eight other sexual assault survivors was dismissed by a federal judge in February.
Like the earlier case, the new lawsuit argues the Austin Police Department and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office “systematically refuse to investigate sex crimes against women based on biased assumptions about their gender.” Defendants include the City of Austin, Travis County, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, former APD Chief Art Acevedo, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore and former Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg.
The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court, argues the plaintiffs were re-traumatized by the criminal justice system after reporting their assaults. They point to years-long delays in rape kit testing results and low prosecution rates, and accuse the police department of being poorly trained and understaffed. Given that the crime of sexual assault disproportinately affects women, the suit argues, the small number of convictions is proof that female survivors are being denied equal protection of the law.
"In response to this lawsuit, Austin and Travis County have the opportunity to revamp their policies and cultures to ensure that sexual assault survivors are heard and respected," said Jenny Ecklund, one of the lawyers representing the victims. "The named plaintiffs in this new class action are hopeful that the addition of their voices to the demand for accountability will help to ensure justice and that APD and the Travis County DA honor and uphold the constitutional rights of their citizens.
The suit calls for sweeping changes within the local criminal justice system, including more trauma-informed training for investigators, faster returns of rape evidence kits, more robust staffing of sexual victims units and better data on the number of sexual assaults reported in Austin and Travis County. The plaintiffs are also seeking monetary damages.
"We’re aware of the lawsuit and will respond appropriately," a spokesperson for the City of Austin said in an email. "In the meantime, the City continues to move forward with its commitment to improve the criminal justice process for cases involving allegations of sexual assault.”
District Attorney Moore said she expected the plaintiffs would not be successful.
"As of this afternoon, the plaintiffs have not afforded us a courtesy copy of the lawsuit, nor have we been served. Therefore, I am unable to respond to any specifics," she said in a statement. "However, I am confident that this Office has consistently fought for the constitutional rights of all citizens, including sexual assault victims, thoroughly and vigorously."
Earlier this year, Judge Lee Yeakel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District threw out a similar case filed in 2018 on behalf of eight sexual assault survivors. He ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to prove these cases were inadequately handled because of gender discrimination. Plaintiffs in that case have appealed.
"It's unfortunate that we're now in a position that we need to bring another lawsuit," said Elizabeth Myers, another one of the women's attorneys. "We hope this time it brings about meaningful change."
This story has been updated.
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