Arizona rape victims were trapped in their leases, until now
An Arizona woman who was raped by a neighbor and then trapped in her apartment lease by a state law is making sure no more sexual-assault victims have to suffer in that way.
She worked with state lawmakers to change an Arizona statute that requires tenants to pay fees to break a lease, which can total thousands of dollars and make moving financially impossible for some.
The law already contained an exception for domestic-abuse victims. Starting Aug. 3, sexual-assault victims also will be allowed to break leases without paying termination fees.
After the woman, who chose not to be named publicly, was assaulted, the landlord claimed the neighbor's reputation could be sullied and refused to let the victim break the apartment lease, Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, learned.
The landlord backed down only after the woman hired a Phoenix lawyer to send an intimidating letter, he said.
The woman realized other victims could be stuck in similar situations.
She and her attorney asked Hernandez to sponsor legislation to fix the problem. The Democratic lawmaker partnered with Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, to push the change this spring.
Syms previously had led the push to change laws to require testing of rape kits and allow victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment to break non-disclosure agreements.
"I was horrified" that sexual-assault survivors were not protected under the law, Hernandez said. "That's just bonkers. ... There's nothing worse than being assaulted in your own home and feeling unsafe where you live."
Arizona law already allowed people who are abused or raped by a spouse or romantic partner to break housing leases without penalty. The law also permitted a domestic-violence victim to pay for the landlord to install a new lock.
The Hernandez-Syms proposal, which passed the Arizona House and Senate by large margins and was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in May, updates the language to include sexual-assault survivors.
"We certainly don't want victims to relive the violence if they're reminded of it in their own home," Syms said. "Victims have already suffered enough."
As word of the bill spread, survivors contacted Hernandez to lend their support, saying they wished they had the option to move after they were attacked years ago, he said.
Among the roadblocks to passing the bill were Arizona lawmakers worried people would exploit the system, Hernandez said.
But strict requirements eased those concerns, he said.
For instance, victims are required to provide a police report or protective order to their landlords and request the lease termination within 30 days of the incident, unless the landlord provides more time.
Property managers also are able to go after a domestic abuser or sexual assailant for costs associated with breaking the lease, if the person is named in the police report or protective order.
Lastly, a false accuser can be liable for three times the cost of breaking the lease.
The Arizona Coalition to End Domestic Violence, which supported the bill, reported that many perpetrators are familiar with their victims and where they live, which can intimidate victims into not reporting crimes for fear of retaliation.
"If there is a persistent fear of that person returning ... it can also stop (the victim's) healing process and keep them in emotional turmoil for years," said Jason Vail Cruz, the coalition's sexual-violence policy coordinator.
A key component to the law's success will be educating victims about their new rights.
Hernandez said he hopes to sit down with law-enforcement unions to notify their police members about the law.
Syms recommended crisis counselors share the information with sexual-assault victims.
Vail Cruz said the coalition plans to spread the news to domestic-violence agencies around the state.
Because Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much at the Arizona Legislature, Syms said this law was a victory for bipartisanship.
"Not only does it help victims, it really shows what's possible when we put party aside and put people first and work together," she said. "This is a success story."
How to break a lease if you've been sexually assaulted
- File a police report or seek an order of protection as soon as possible.
- Request the lease termination within 30 days of the assault or rape, unless your landlord grants more time.
- Tell your landlord that you need to break your apartment lease under Arizona Revised Statute 33-1318, which allows victims of sexual assault and domestic violence to leave without paying termination fees.
- Provide the landlord with a written request to vacate on a mutually agreed upon date along with copies of the police report or order of protection.
- If you wish to change the locks on your apartment while you stay, let the landlord know. You will need to pay for installation.
- The landlord cannot charge termination fees or rent after you vacate and must return your security deposit. However, if you have prepaid rent for the month of your departure or if you have damaged the apartment, the landlord can withhold money.
- Roommates on the lease can sign a new rental agreement if they wish to stay and are not the perpetrator.
- A landlord may legally pursue the perpetrator for the cost of terminating the lease. A false accuser can be liable for three times the cost.
Signs abusive relationship may turn deadly
A landmark study, led by Jacquelyn Campbell at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and published in the National Institute of Justice Journal, established risk factors that indicate a greater chance an abused person may be killed by her or his intimate partner.
Risks of being killed increase when:
- Physical violence has increased in severity or frequency over the past year.
- Your partner owns a gun.
- You have left after living together during the past year.
- Your partner is unemployed.
- Your partner has used a weapon against you or threatened you with a lethal weapon.
- Your partner has threatened to kill you.
- Your partner has avoided being arrested for domestic violence.
- You have a child who is not your partner's biological child.
- Your partner has forced you to have sex.
- Your partner has tried to choke you.
- Your partner uses illegal drugs.
- Your partner is an alcoholic.
- Your partner controls most or all of your daily activities.
- Your partner is violently and constantly jealous of you.
- Your partner has beaten you while you were pregnant.
- Your partner has threatened to hurt your children.
- You believe your partner is capable of killing you.
- Your partner follows or spies on you, leaves threatening messages, destroys your belongings or calls you when you don't want him to.
- You have threatened or tried to commit suicide.
Help for abusers:
- Men Stopping Violence program at Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse: 520-795-4266, 888-428-0101, email@example.com, www.emergecenter.org.
Help for victims:
- Arizona Coalition To End Domestic Violence: 602-279-2900, 800-782-6400, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.acesdv.org.
- Maricopa County shelters: 602-263-8900.
- 24-hour domestic-violence hotline: 800-799-7233.
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: 800-656-4673, www.rainn.org.
Do you have an issue you think the public needs to know about? I'm #HereToHelpAZ. Contact consumer protection reporter Rebekah L. Sanders at email@example.com, text HereToHelpAZ to 51555 or fill out our online form.
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