What is the Rape Shield Law?


The Rape Shield Law is a rule of evidence that determines the admissibility of the alleged victim’s sexual behavior when a defendant is charged with certain sexual offenses. Generally speaking, reputation testimony, opinion testimony, and specific instances of a victim’s sexual behavior are all ‘shielded,’ or inadmissible from court proceedings. This means that the jury will not be able to hear any of this information regarding the victim’s sexual behavior. The rule makes a distinction between evidence of sexual activity between the alleged victim and the defendant and evidence of sexual activity between the alleged victim and other sexual partners.

Why does it exist? This rule was put into effect because some defendants might introduce this evidence in an attempt to shame the victim or make the victim’s morality the central issue in the case. Additionally, the rule may make more victims hesitant to report sexual offenses for fear that their personal sex lives will become public. One can certainly understand that a rape victim who has had multiple sexual partners in his or her personal life should not fear that such information would be make public during the rape trial when it has nothing to do whether or not a rape occurred.

Does it go too far? While this rule achieves positive social aims, some people feel that the rule goes too far when it denies the jury from being able to hear whether the victim has made false accusations in the past, as this might certainly be relevant in determining whether the alleged victim is making a false claim in the present case. Other people do not believe that the rule goes too far and believe that it should be even more expansive.

When does it apply? This rule applies not only to the actual trial, but also to the preliminary hearing, depositions, and other proceedings. This rule applies when a defendant is accused of certain sexual offenses, as listed below. In the few exceptions where evidence of the victim’s sexual behavior is admissible, there are additional conditions that must be met. The defense attorney must comply with a pre-trial procedure if this testimony is to be admitted, wherein the court can determine whether the evidence will be used for a permissible purpose.

Tennessee Rule of Evidence 412: Sex Offense Cases; Relevance of Victim’s Sexual Behavior.

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, in a criminal trial, preliminary hearing, deposition, or other proceeding in which a person is accused of an offense under T.C.A. §§ 39-13-502 [aggravated rape], 39-13-503 [rape], 39-13-504 [aggravated sexual battery], 39-13-505 [sexual battery], 39-13-507 [spousal sexual offenses], 39-13-522 [rape of a child], 39-15-302 [incest], 39-13-506 [statutory rape], 39- 13-527 [sexual battery by an authority figure], 39-13-528 [solicitation of minors for sexual acts], or the attempt to commit any such offense, the following rules apply:

(a) Definition of sexual behavior.  In this rule “sexual behavior” means sexual activity of the alleged victim other than the sexual act at issue in the case.

(b) Reputation or opinion.   Reputation or opinion evidence of the sexual behavior of an alleged victim of such offense is inadmissible unless admitted in accordance with the procedures in subdivision (d) of this Rule and required by the Tennessee or United States Constitution.

(c) Specific instances of conduct.   Evidence of specific instances of a victim’s sexual behavior is inadmissible unless admitted in accordance with the procedures in subdivision (d) of this rule, and the evidence is:

(1) Required by the Tennessee or United States Constitution, or

(2) Offered by the defendant on the issue of credibility of the victim, provided the prosecutor or victim has presented evidence as to the victim’s sexual behavior, and only to the extent needed to rebut the specific evidence presented by the prosecutor or victim, or

(3) If the sexual behavior was with the accused, on the issue of consent, or

(4) If the sexual behavior was with persons other than the accused,

(i) to rebut or explain scientific or medical evidence, or

(ii) to prove or explain the source of semen, injury, disease, or knowledge of sexual matters, or

(iii) to prove consent if the evidence is of a pattern of sexual behavior so distinctive and so closely resembling the accused’s version of the alleged encounter with the victim that it tends to prove that the victim consented to the act charged or behaved in such a manner as to lead the defendant reasonably to believe that the victim consented.

(d) Procedures.   If a person accused of an offense covered by this Rule intends to offer under subdivision (b) reputation or opinion evidence or under subdivision (c) specific instances of conduct of the victim, the following procedures apply:

(1) the person must file a written motion to offer such evidence.

(i) The motion shall be filed no later than ten days before the date on which the trial is scheduled to begin, except the court may allow the motion to be made at a later date, including during trial, if the court determines either that the evidence is newly discovered and could not have been obtained earlier through the exercise of due diligence or that the issue to which the evidence relates has newly arisen in the case.

(ii) The motion shall be served on all parties, the prosecuting attorney, and the victim; Service on the victim shall be made through the prosecuting attorney’s office.

(iii) The motion shall be accompanied by a written offer of proof, describing the specific evidence and the purpose for introducing it.

(2) When a motion required by subdivision (d)(1) is filed and found by the court to comply with the requirements of this rule, the court shall hold a hearing in chambers or otherwise out of the hearing of the public and the jury to determine whether the evidence described in the motion is admissible. The hearing shall be on the record, but the record shall be sealed except for the limited purposes of facilitating appellate review, assisting the court or parties in their preparation of the case, and to impeach under subdivision (d)(3)(iii).

(3) At this hearing

(i) The victim may attend in person,

(ii) The parties may call witnesses, including the alleged victim, and offer relevant evidence, and

(iii) the accused may testify but the testimony during this hearing may not be used against the accused in the preliminary hearing, trial, or other proceeding, except that such testimony may be admissible to impeach the credibility of the defendant if the defendant elects to testify at the preliminary hearing, trial, or other proceeding.

(4) If the court determines that the evidence which the accused seeks to offer satisfies subdivisions (b) or (c) and that the probative value of the evidence outweighs its unfair prejudice to the victim, the evidence shall be admissible in the proceeding to the extent an order made by the court specifies the evidence which may be offered and areas with respect to which the alleged victim may be examined or cross-examined.