BY: AISHA ILYAD
California has officially dropped the statute of limitations on rape cases, effective from January 1st 2017. The law applies to: “rape, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation and sexual penetration” committed forcibly, against a minor or while the victim was unconscious. But why do rape cases have statutes of limitations to begin with, and what does this new ban mean for victims?
In general terms, a statute of limitations is a time limit in which a person has to file a claim. If the time limit expires, the individual who wishes to bring forth a claim is barred from doing so and once the time is up, nothing can be done. In a criminal context, a statute of limitations is the time limit in which the prosecutor must file charges. In some jurisdictions, the statute begins to run from the date of the offense or discovery of the offense. In other jurisdictions, the statute starts to run after the victim reports the crime to authorities. Across the U.S., statutes of limitations for rape or sexual assault cases vary from three years to 30 years, and the clock usually doesn’t start for rape cases involving minors until they turn 18.
The problem with this is that the time limit in statutes of limitations for rape cases effectively erase some rape allegations of the past, letting alleged criminals off the hook because their victims waited too long to come forward. The main reason for having statutes of limitations in these cases, similar to other crimes, is that it becomes much harder to prosecute a suspect years after the criminal act took place, as victims’ and witnesses’ memories fade, and evidence disappears. Because rape cases often become hearsay battles in court, it can be more difficult to prosecute years after the fact than other crimes.
The statutes also serve to give suspects some closure so they don’t live their whole life with an allegation that hasn’t gone to trial.
Evidence such as DNA or bruises, are very time sensitive, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
However, DNA technology is drastically changing the nature of rape cases, making it much easier to prosecute suspects years after the crime, as it can be analyzed after any amount of time if collected properly. Medical forensic sexual assault exams, commonly known as rape kits, can’t prove consent or a lack thereof, but they can help identify a suspect. Of course, not every rape victim is given a rape kit, so DNA evidence isn’t present in every case.
The other major problem with having a statute of limitations on rape cases is that it can be extremely difficult for women to report being sexually assaulted. According to the U.S. National Institute of Justice, the most common reasons people don’t report sexual assault are that they feel guilty or embarrassed, worry that they won’t be believed, or don’t trust the police.
Last year the National Center for Victims of Crime in the U.S. declared that “only 46 per cent of rapes that occur in the United States are reported to police and only 9 per cent of these reports result in prosecution.” The organization suggests that more states adopt an exception to their statutes of limitations when DNA evidence is available linking an individual to a sex crime.
It takes victims time to come to terms with what happened to them and everyone copes differently, which can affect when they feel comfortable reporting the assault.
According to Mic, the bill was inspired by the Bill Cosby case, which saw 50 women come forward and accuse Cosby of drugging and raping them. Unfortunately, the law won’t help the majority of Cosby’s accusers, but it will encourage other victims to speak out in the future.
Many states do not have a statute of limitations in place, while others have a longer time frame. California is now the 17th state to eliminate the statute of limitations on rape cases, and subsequently has taken steps to make the justice system safer for victims.