Monday, September 12, 2016

California May End Statute of Limitations for Rape Victims

Bill Cosby has infamously had a large number of women coming forward, publicly making accusations that they were raped by the star in the last few decades. Despite their reports, many were upset to learn that Cosby would not be prosecuted for the offenses against them because the criminal statute of limitations had expired. Mr. Cosby is facing a single criminal sexual assault case in Pennsylvania because it is the only one that fell within that state's deadlines for the filing of charges.

What is a statute of limitations?

A statute of limitations is a legal deadline beyond which date a case may not be filed. In California, the deadline for the criminal prosecution of sex assault cases is the same as that for other felony cases with the exception of murder and embezzlement. While those two crimes do not have statutes of limitations attached to them, felony sex assault cases in California must be filed within 10 years of the date of the assault. There are exceptions to this deadline for cases in which the sexual assault was later discovered, such as through new DNA evidence. 

The rationale for imposing a statute of limitations

Proponents of statutes of limitations argue that it is much more difficult to prosecute cases that are very old. They also argue that relaxing or eliminating statutes of limitations would allow people to come forward with false accusations built on little evidence. 

Why sex assault victims often do not come forward for lengthy periods

In many sex assault cases, the victims often do not come forward to report their abuse for years. Some feel like no one will believe them. Others feel shame or blame themselves for what happened to them. Still others may have repressed the memories of the abuse for it to only later resurface. A major problem with this is that when reports are not made, the police do not hold onto evidence because no evidence has been gathered because of the lack of reports.

California's proposed law

The outrage surrounding the inability of the women to seek justice against Cosby has led state legislators to propose a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for the prosecution of sex assault cases in California. The Justice for Victims Act, Senate Bill 813, has already passed both houses of the legislature and is awaiting Governor Jerry Brown's signature. Gov. Brown has already vetoed two previous bills that would have eliminated the statute of limitations for rape cases, so it is unclear whether or not the bill will be signed into law. 

If the bill is signed into law, victims of sex assault could come forward and make their reports decades after the offense happened. Because of constitutional issues, the law would only apply to sex assaults that occur going forward because the retroactive application of a criminal statute of limitations is unconstitutional. This would allow victims to tell their stories even if the cases would be difficult to prove.

Civil statute of limitations

California also has a civil statute of limitations for sex assault cases filed under the state's civil code. Under Cal. Civil Code 340.1, people who were victims of childhood sexual abuse may file a civil lawsuit within 8 years of reaching age 18. For those who only later discover that the abuse occurred or that their psychological injuries resulted from childhood sex abuse, they may file civil lawsuits against the perpetrator within 3 years of the date of discovery. 

Contact an attorney

Whether California eliminates the criminal statute of limitations for sex assault cases or not, victims may be able to file civil lawsuits against their perpetrators. By doing so, they may be able to hold their abusers accountable while also seeking the recovery of damages to compensate them for the wrongs perpetrated against them. Because the burden of proof that is required to prove civil cases is lower than that required to prove criminal allegations, victims may be able to recover damages through civil lawsuits even if the defendants are found not guilty in their corresponding criminal trials. If you have been the victim of a sex assault in California, contact a sexual assault and abuse victims' attorney about whether or not you have a valid case and when you should file.