On April 7th, Wisconsin voters will be asked to amend the state constitution to enact “Marsy’s Law,” a sweeping measure that purports to protect victims’ rights – but in fact threatens the civil liberties of all Wisconsinites.
At first glance, Marsy’s Law seems innocuous enough. The ACLU of Wisconsin is a strong supporter of victims’ rights, and supporters of Marsy’s Law say the Amendment is necessary to ensure equal rights for the victims of crime.
But in reality, Marsy’s Law fails to meaningfully improve upon existing protections for victims while creating a host of new problems and simultaneously weakening the rights of the accused.
At the ACLU of Wisconsin, we work tirelessly to ensure our criminal justice system operates fairly and equitably – especially for the most vulnerable in society. We specialize in ensuring Wisconsinites are protected from constitutional harm. Article I of the Wisconsin Constitution explicitly provides for victim’s rights, providing crime victims the right to fairness, dignity, privacy as well as several other enumerated rights at all crucial stages of criminal proceedings – so long as they do not limit the rights of the accused.
Wisconsin’s version of Marsy’s Law undermines this framework – in effect, eliminating certain crucial constitutional rights of the accused.
Our criminal justice system is based on the fundamental principle that before the government can take away your life or liberty, the government must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Until then, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But, whether intentional or not, Marsy’s Law would remove that presumption of innocence – tipping the scales of justice against the accused. For example, Marsy’s Law would allow a person accusing another person of a crime to withhold evidence.
This is a recipe for more wrongful convictions, more innocent people languishing behind bars, and more families needlessly torn apart by the criminal legal system.
In addition, the law’s vague and overbroad language will create even more problems than it purports to solve. In Ohio, a municipal government claimed “victim” status against a man with schizophrenia who called 9-1-1. In Florida and South Dakota, police officers who have shot and harmed or killed people are claiming “victim” status, asserting they were acting in the interest of the public when carrying out the shootings. Yes, you read that correctly: the police officers who shot people said that they were the victim and guaranteed additional protections under the law.
Under Wisconsin’s Marsy’s Law, any of these examples could become reality. In fact, even corporations could claim victim status as the measure lacks clear restrictions on who qualifies as a victim.
Victims deserve to be notified and heard at criminal proceedings. They deserve to be informed of the status of the person who harmed them. These rights exist in Wisconsin’s Constitution and statutes – but it takes money and power to ensure access to those rights, not an unclear and sweeping constitutional amendment.
Wisconsin victims deserve better than Marsy’s law.
Forcing voters to choose between empathy for victims and protections for the accused is a false choice. We do not have to take away defendants’ rights or cause mass confusion in our justice system in order to protect victims’ rights. We can and should protect victims and defendants – both. The alternative is to jeopardize the integrity and fundamental fairness of our judicial system.
On April 7th, Wisconsin voters should vote “no” on this misguided and harmful amendment.