The general purpose of a statue of limitations is to ensure convictions are based upon evidence that has not deteriorated. With time, some memories become weaker and less reliable, physical evidence is destroyed or lost, and witnesses move or die. After the time period of the statute has run out, a criminal is essentially free. I’d like to focus on statutes of limitations pertaining to sexual assault, because data from the Department of Justice indicates that rape and sexual assault are the least reported violent crimes, with only around a third of victims reporting. Throughout the last year, various states’ statutes of limitation pertaining to sexual assault crimes have been a main focus in the media and bills across the nation.
It’s true, memories and evidence can deteriorate over time, thus becoming less reliable. However, it’s also true it can take longer for people to remember/realize events or summon the courage to come forward. Even when survivors do go to the police, law enforcement routinely fails to fully investigate their claims. Nationwide, 500,000 rape kits still await testing.
Here is an Infographic detailing statistics on rape and sexual assault.
Statutes are meant to protect defendants from denial of their Due Process because they were not on notice to preserve evidence. Statutes of limitations represent legislators balancing interests both of the Defendant and the Plaintiff.
Not all crimes are governed by statutes of limitations; different crimes in different states have no statutes. There is no statute of limitations for murder in all 50 states. Sex offenses with minors, crimes of violence, kidnapping, arson, and forgery have no statutes in a number of states. In Arizona and California, crimes involving public money or public records have no statutes of limitation and Colorado there is none for treason.
In the United States, 34 states have statutes of limitation on rape and/or sexual assaults, ranging from as little as three years up to 30. Some of these statutes have reporting deadlines. 27 states provide some type of exemption from statutes of limitation if a DNA match is made on a reported sexual assault. The time period for these statutes has consistently gotten longer with more special circumstances.
Due events like the various accusations of sexual assault by Bill Cosby coming to light, many states have been revisiting their statute of limitations for sexual assault and rape. Florida passed HB 133 after Danielle Sullivan started the state wide 43 Days Initiative when she reported an assault just 43 days after the Florida statute of limitations (four years) ran up in her case.
Nevada raised its statute of limitations for rape from four years to 20 (AB 212) in response to a campaign launched by Lise-Lotte Lublin, a Nevada resident, who alleged that Cosby drugged and raped her in a Las Vegas hotel room in 1989. Colorado also introduced two new laws: HB 1072 which would eliminate the statute of limitations and HB 1260 that would extend the limitations from 10 to 20 years in response to two Colorado women who also alleged they were drugged and assaulted by the TV icon.
In California, State Senator Connie M. Leyva proposed SB 813 to scrap the 10-year statute of limitations on rape cases along with sexual assault cases involving lewd or lascivious acts, child sexual abuse, oral sex and sexual penetration. She stated, “A sexual predator should not be able to evade legal consequences in California for no other reason than that the time limits set in state law have expired. Victims should have the opportunity to prove their accusations in a court of law, even if it is over a decade after the offense was committed.”
Massachusetts’ S 865 and New York’s A 363 would abolish statute of limitations for cases where the assault happened to a minor. Utah’s HB 279 amended their statute to further protect children. Deondra Brown from the Foundation for Survivors Abuse (Utah) stated, “The bipartisan passage of this bill is essential in protecting the 1:4 girls and 1:6 boys who are statistically projected to be victims of sex abuse before their 18th birthday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The foundation is working on similar legislation in the House, and looks forward to continuing to represent victims across the country.”
Maryland bills HB 519 and SB 903 extend their statute to 10 years for human rights abuses. New Jersey’s A 865 and A 2659 remove statute of limitations in certain civil actions for sexual abuse and expands categories of defendants liable.
Oregon’s Melissa’s Bill, or SB 1571, ensures the timeliness of sending sexual assault forensic evidence to a lab for testing by requiring police agencies to pick up kits within seven days after a hospital alerts them about its existence, submit them to the crime lab for testing within 14 days and store all kits for 60 years. Their SB 1600 allows prosecutions of first-degree sex crimes beyond the 12-year statute of limitations if corroborating evidence arises at any time or if multiple victims come forward.
Perhaps the strongest bill is Pennsylvania’s HB 1947. This bill would abolish the criminal statute of limitations for future criminal prosecutions for “serious child sexual abuse crimes” relating to human trafficking, sexual servitude, rape, statutory sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, institutional sexual assault, aggravated indecent sexual assault and incest. It would waive sovereign immunity for state and local public institutions in cases of gross negligence, which would allow civil cases to be filed against them. And finally, the bill would increase the length of time (from age 30 to age 50) for when child sexual abuse victims could file civil claims.
It is clear the country is rallying behind victims of sexual assault to support them with extended time and circumstances in reporting. In my opinion, there should never be a cap on reporting for minors and any match in DNA evidence should allow the case to proceed no matter the statute in the state. Increasing the time and circumstances allowed for reporting is a small step forward in the fight to end sexual assault and rape, but for the men and women who find the courage to speak after years of silence and fear, it’s everything.