The principle of the statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges against an individual has been part of our justice system since our nation’s founding. There are a number of reasons for having a statutes of limitations, which we will discuss below. The state of California, however, has taken a big step away from this principle through the passage of a new law which removes the statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases. What this means is that a person may be prosecuted for rape when an alleged victim comes forward many decades later. Conceivably, a 70-year old could face trial and prison time for an alleged rape occurring when he was 20 years old. Although the effects of this new law will not be known for some time, it is important to examine how it will affect our justice system.
How the New Law Affects Sexual Assault Cases
The new California law was passed due to a groundswell of support after multiple accusations of rape were made against Bill Cosby regarding incidents that occurred several decades in the past. Previously, the statute of limitations for rape and sexual assault was 10 years in California, meaning a prosecution would have to begin within 10 years of the alleged incident. Because California criminal charges could not be brought based on any of the allegations against Cosby, supporters persuaded the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown to sign the new law.
Critically, the law will only affect incidents that occur on or after January 1, 2017, meaning the only cases that will be affected by this new law will not occur until at least 2027. But conceivably, an alleged event occurring in 2017 could be prosecuted not just in 2027, but in 2057, 2087, and beyond.
Criticism of the New Law
California is not the first state to lift the statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases, and it joins 17 other states, including New York, in having no statute of limitations in such cases. Supporters of the law argue that lifting the restriction gives victims more time to process what happened to them and to build up the emotional resources needed to speak out against their accuser, while also providing a stronger deterrent to would-be perpetrators who might think they can commit a crime and get away with it so long as the victim is silent for 10 years.
The problem with lifting the restriction, however, points to the original reasons statutes of limitations were put in place. Such laws give prosecutors the incentive to bring cases more quickly while evidence is fresh and memories of the alleged events are more clear. When decades take place between an alleged event and a courtroom trial, it can become very difficult for witnesses, accusers, and defendants alike to remember the details with any clarity. Rape and sexual assault cases often come down to two essential questions – 1) is the person on trial the person that committed the alleged act?, and 2) was there consent for the sexual act in question? – and those questions tend to get harder to answer, not easier, as the years go by.
That said, the new law is what defendants will have to deal with going forward, and thus having the best criminal defense possible will become all the more important, given the long prison sentences handed down in rape and sexual assault cases.
Contact a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Our criminal defense attorneys are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to defend your rights during a sex crimes investigation or prosecution and to protect your freedom and reputation. We provide legal assistance in English, Spanish, Farsi, Korean, and Arabic. Contact our offices today to schedule a consultation with a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney to see what we can do for you.