Is it time to get rid of statutes of limitations on sexual assault crimes?

Sexual assault statistics are staggering: One in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. One in six women and one in thirty-three men will experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. And, one in every seven victims of sexual assault is under the age of six.

#MeToo has helped women to find the courage to come forward to seek justice. But, even encouraged, victims may still find that statutes of limitations prevent them from filing charges.

A statute of limitations is the amount of time someone can pursue legal action for a crime.

Even though over fifty women came forward to tell stories of abuse by Bill Cosby, only one woman was able to pursue charges as the event occurred just under twelve years before her case was opened. In Pennsylvania, twelve years is the statute of limitations for this crime. For the other women, too much time had passed.

In some states, as a result of the #MeToo movement, statutes of limitations have been changed, either by doing away with the them–meaning that when a person feels ready to come forward to pursue justice he or she is able to do so despite the amount of time that has passed–or by modifying the time period enough to account for the uniqueness of sexual crimes.

But, these changes are highly controversial, with experts lining up on both sides of issue.

Should a victim be able to file a charge against someone regardless of how much time has passed? Or, should we simply modify the law to give more time in some specific situations?

We should do away with statute of limitations for sexual assault charges.

reluctance to report

Victims are generally reluctant to report sexual harassment and sexual violence, especially when the abuser has the power to retaliate. And, in 8 out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knows the person who sexually assaults them.

In addition, sexual assault is the most under-reported crime with 63% of incidents not divulged to police.

In order to come forward, the victim may require counseling for a period of time.

backlog of rape kits

A rape kit contains the evidence of a sexual assault, like blood, urine, hair, semen and other sources of DNA for use in court.

There is a “backlog” of unanalyzed rape kits, meaning there is evidence out there that’s not being used by our criminal justice system. Some kits should have been sent to crime labs, yet are accidentally overlooked. Some kits make it to crime labs but don’t get tested–at least for long periods, making results unavailable to victims.

child victims

Children are the most reluctant victims to report crimes of sexual assault, with only about 12% eventually coming forward.

The age of the victim (older children feel more responsibility and therefore shame, and they stay silent longer) and his or her relationship to the abuser affect whether or not the victim stays silent. If the abuser comes from inside the family, the child is much more likely not to report the crime.

But, with time, and reflection, some children come forward–only to find that statutes of limitations have run out.

what Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein showed us

After years of silence, over 60 women came forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault but their time had run out to find justice. Andrea Constand filed a few weeks before the Pennsylvania statute of limitations expired her case.

From this case, Cosby was convicted of multiple charges of sexual assault, and now faces 3-10 years in state prison after the jury found him guilty of drugging Constand in order to have sex with her.

Statutes of limitations have also kept victims of Harvey Weinstein from pursuing their cases.

Dozens of victims have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct, but in California, the statute of limitations for non-aggravated rape is six years (unless DNA evidence is produced to identify the rapist).

In other words, for many of these women, the statute of limitations in California prevent the district attorney from prosecuting Weinstein for their cases. New York has no statute of limitations for prosecuting rape, and currently Weinstein is being investigated in Manhattan.

We should modify the law but not do away with it.

state-level progress

29 states have changed the deadlines regarding child sexual abuse, giving victims more time to pursue criminal cases while not doing away with all limitations.

Advocates are working toward legal changes that could allow a case to be reopened:

  • if DNA evidence is presented
  • if audio, video or other electronic recordings, text messages, phone recordings or photographs provide incriminating evidence
  • if there is a confession
  • if police receive information regarding another victim of a similar crime by the same suspect

missing the point

“The biggest barrier to victims’ coming forward isn’t the statute of limitations, but what victims face when they do report,” says Sandra Park, senior attorney with the national A.C.L.U. Women’s Rights Project. Far more often, system bias stands in the way, Park said, when police officers and detectives dismiss survivor testimonies and lose or mishandle evidence. Rather than focusing on statutes of limitations, Park said policymakers instead should make sure law enforcement is trained to handle sexual assault cases appropriately.

alibi and other evidence

the quicker the trial, the more accurate

Receipts, GPS data, texts, calls–can all establish time and location. Detectives can check with friends, stores, schools, look at surveillance tapes, and much more. All of this establishes credibility; doubt from the passage of years can create doubt in jurors which can create mistrial.

deteriorated or lost evidence

Information gathered and stored through crime labs is more likely to be lost or damaged over time.

standards for conviction

The standard for convicting a person of a crime—beyond a reasonable doubt—is more difficult to meet the older the case. Jurors may see change in much-older perpetrators. They may see holes in difficult-to-find evidence. And, the statistics aren’t good for victims regardless of the time they come forward, with 99% of the people accused of sexual assault not being convicted of the crime.

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