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National Crime Victim Law Institute

How can I learn who has rights as a crime victim?

April 15, 2010

This is not a simple answer. Often we can see or feel the suffering of others and recognize them as victims. When it comes to the legal definition of “victim” and understanding who is entitled to victims’ rights, our human understanding of victimization is not enough. The term “victim” is a legal term of art, which means that the law defines what “victim” means. The law varies from state to state, between state constitutions and statutes, between the states and the federal criminal justice systems, and often depends upon what right you are seeking. Often this legal definition of victim is totally different than what we would consider a victim to be in our everyday lives.

Determining who qualifies for rights as a legal victim requires reading all of the victims’ rights laws in the state or federal jurisdiction where the case against the offender is being investigated or prosecuted, or where the crime against the victim occurred. (For more information about what some of these laws are please see our Library of Victims’ Rights.)

Examples of the legal definition of “victim” include:

  • Federal: “[a] person directly and proximately harmed as a result of the commission of a Federal offense or an offense in the District of Columbia. In the case of a crime victim who is under 18 years of age, incompetent, incapacitated, or deceased, the legal guardians of the crime victim or the representatives of the crime victim’s estate, family members, or any other persons appointed as suitable by the court, may assume the crime victim’s rights under this chapter, but in no event shall the defendant be named as such guardian or representative.” 18 U.S.C. § 3771(e).
  • Arizona: “‘Victim’ means a person against whom the criminal offense has been committed or, if the person is killed or incapacitated, the person’s spouse, parent, child or other lawful representative except if the person is in custody for an offense or is the accused.” Ariz. Const. 2 § 2.1(C).
  • New Mexico: Only victims of enumerated offenses have rights under the New Mexico Constitution. The constitution provides that the following are persons with rights: “A victim of arson resulting in bodily injury, aggravated arson, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, dangerous use of explosives, negligent use of a deadly weapon, murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, kidnapping, criminal sexual penetration, criminal sexual contact of a minor, homicide by vehicle, great bodily injury by vehicle or abandonment or abuse of a child or that victim’s representative…” N.M. Const. II, §24(A).

A victim advocate or victim attorney can usually help you read these provisions and help determine whether you are a victim within the meaning of the law.