Alabama authorities launched an investigation into a local shooting, and in the course of collecting evidence, reportedly found something that led to three felony arrests for sexual assault of an unconscious spring breaker in Florida.
It was a cell phone video. It appeared to depict an unconscious woman being sexually assaulted by at least three men, despite being surrounded by hundreds of other spring-breakers, who did nothing to intervene. Investigators say it appears the assault took place sometime in mid-March behind a popular bar in Panama City, FL.
Thus far, three men – one from Tennessee and two others, students at Troy University in Alabama – have been arrested on suspicion of sexual assault by multiple perpetrators. The two Alabama students have since been suspended from school.
It’s not yet clear whether the person who filmed the alleged attack was in any way involved, but the local sheriffs condemned the fact that no one stepped in to stop these actions. He derided the complicit norms that make it more likely for someone to whip out a cell phone and film an encounter before taking steps to intervene.
But of course, as our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers know, that assumes bystanders even recognized anything illegal was happening. Certainly, spring break is known for raucous behavior and lowered inhibitions, and that’s precisely why many people attend in the first place.
It’s estimated some 100,000 people descend on Panama City alone each year for spring break. In this kind of atmosphere especially, issues of consent can be blurred. This can result in defendants being blindsided by allegations of sexual assault. Indeed, it may even blindside the victims. For example in this case, there is no evidence the alleged victim made any attempt to report an alleged assault at the time it occurred. The victim reportedly did not realize she had been assaulted until a news program aired portions of the video and she recognized her tattoos. Investigators say they believe the woman may have been drugged.
At this point, sheriffs deputies in Bay County, where the incident occurred, say they have been able to interview three purported witnesses, but the investigation is still in the early stages. It’s not clear how police identified the alleged perpetrators or how clearly the video allows for identification of those involved. If the video is grainy, it’s likely eye witness accounts will be essential, particularly because whatever DNA evidence might have existed has likely been destroyed at this point. However, witness accounts are likely to be tainted by the fact that many people were intoxicated, vacationing from out-of-town (and thus unfamiliar with surroundings, landmarks, timelines, etc.).
Florida has a law specifically intended to address instances of sexual assault by multiple perpetrators (i.e., “gang rape”). That statute increases penalties for sexual assault committed by more than one offender on the same victim. So an offense that would otherwise by a second-degree felony is bumped up to a first-degree felony. What otherwise would have been charged as a first-degree felony would instead be charged as a life felony.
Alabama does not have any such provision. However, allegations of sexual assault are extremely serious, and could carry penalties that include the imposition of decades-long prison sentences. It’s imperative to contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer.