abolish or extend the statute of limitations

Should We Abolish Or Extend The Statute Of Limitations?

Now that we have a better understanding of the experiences and trauma of victims, advocates have suggested abolishing or extending the statute of limitations regarding sex crimes. Activists claim that our laws are suited toward an archaic understanding of sexual assault, and an update is needed.

On Sex Crimes – Abolish Or Extend The Statute Of Limitations?

Statutes of limitations are one of the defining features of our modern legal system. They are a demonstration of the fact that our system is predicated upon the presumption of innocence (1).

The assumption of the defendant’s innocence is one of the key differences between the medieval barbarism of the past and the civil way of adjudicating cases now.

They are as old as Roman law, and their goal is to balance the rights of the defendant and the rights of the accused (2). Their purpose, in other words, is to maintain public safety as well as protect defendants from wrongful charges.

Reasons For Statute Of Limitations

There a few key reasons for why we attach a statute of limitations to a number of different crimes.

For instance, if someone commits a crime in their early twenties, and are accused of that crime twenty years later, the effect of putting that person in jail may be a counterproductive one.

The defendant might’ve changed their life around completely. They could have a family, a great job or career, and contribute meaningfully to society. The effect of putting such a person in prison may do more harm than good.

Moreover, in civil litigation, for example, if there were no statute of limitations, a business would be exposed to both small and large crimes for forever. An insurance company wouldn’t be able to sell liability insurance if there were no end to exposure.

And when it comes to criminal defense cases, statutes of limitations reduce the risk of a wrongful conviction – reinforcing the criminal justice system’s emphasis on the rights of the defendant.

Memory is a fragile thing. It’s constantly changing due to new experiences, as people look back on things with a new perspective, and also with a different interpretation of the past.

One can even look at the past dishonesty, for the sake of avoiding a truth about themselves, or about another.

And the statute of limitations is a way of protecting defendants against the flaws of human beings. Over time, memories fade, police lose and destroy evidence, witnesses become increasingly unreliable or we can’t find them at all.

Since the beginning of the United States, limiting the time in which one can press charges against another has been a founding feature.

Recently, there have been some extensions on the statute of limitations, but state legislatures, commonly, have had theirs set at five years or less. There are cases where the crime is so heinous that there is no time limit, like murder, for instance.

A court can charge or prosecute someone with murder at any point regardless of how much time has passed.

Where We Are Today Following The Catholic Church’s Sex Abuse Scandal

Even though the FBI has categorized sexual assault as the second-most-serious offense for the last few decades, the federal government hasn’t made many changes to the law.

But after The Boston Globe’s revelations in 2002 regarding the sexual abuse perpetrated by priests of the church, we’ve begun to reevaluate the statue of limitations (3).

The articles written by the publication pointed out that the accusers hadn’t come out about what had happened to them until they were in their forties, long past the legal time limit (3).

And society began to realize that sexual assault victims wouldn’t come out for many reasons. But mostly because they feared shaming, intimidation, ridicule, in addition to not wanting to flesh out traumatic experiences once again.

In other words, trauma often keeps these people from telling what had happened to them.

Since then, advocates argued that the statute of limitations has made it challenging for victims to speak out about their abuse, and has resulted in sexual predators walking free.

Some States Have Modified The Laws

Ever since 2002, 29 states in the United States have changed their prosecution deadlines so that victims of child sexual abuse can come forward later in life (2).

15 states have eliminated deadlines completely when it comes to childhood sexual abuse (2).

However, victims of prior sexual assaults before the legal changes were enacted can’t benefit from the updated laws. The Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to go back and apply new laws to old cases.

Not only would that contradict the principle of freedom in American society, but it would also bog down the courts. Some states, however, are able to apply for extensions in civil cases.

Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, And The #MeToo Movement

Most recently, we’ve seen the effect of the statute of limitations on victims and perpetrators with the case of Bill Cosby back in 2014 and 2015.

Because of the time limit, only one woman has been able to charge Bill with a crime, Andrea Constand.

After Bill’s crimes, activists called the time limits into question once again, regardless of the age of the accuser.

Back in April of this year, the court and jury convicted Bill Cosby of three counts of sexual assault, and he could face up to thirty years in jail. However, the sentence for each crime can be served at one time.

Harvey Weinstein has also been protected by the statute of limitations.

Sexual assault crimes are hard to prosecute, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that as 88% of the rape cases involve two parties who know each other (2).

And the battle between the defendant and the complainant usually comes down to whether the altercation between them was consensual.

Federal Investigators Reveal “Systematic Bias” Against Sexual Assault Victims

According to RAINN – a group defending the rights of sexual assault victims – only one out of six of every 1,000 accused of sexual assault end up in prison (2).

The result of the underreporting of sex crimes is probably both a cause and an effect of this. Federal data shows that many victims don’t report their cases.

Federal investigations have exposed the systemic bias in law enforcement’s reaction to sexual violence (4).

In states like New Orleans, Baltimore, and Puerto Rico, federal officials have claimed there is “gender-biased policing,” especially in relation to sex crimes (2).

Police officers and prosecutors’ handling of sexual assault cases are often “grossly inadequate,” according to the New York Times (2).

They are hostile or don’t believe in them in the first place. For this reason, victims are reluctant to come out about the crimes.

According to The Times, police often blame the victim for the assault because of what they wore, how they dressed, or what they said (2).

Because of the “dismissive attitude” toward the victims, they often ignore or neglect evidence altogether.

Over many years, police often don’t test rape kits. They have abandoned, ignored, or even lost them in storage units and in crime labs (2).

And when police get rid of rape kits for making space for evidence rooms, it makes it harder to prosecute someone who is a repeat offender.

Back in 2009, Detroit officials found that 11,341 rape kits hadn’t been tested and 2,616 of them matched the profiles in the forensic DNA database in the FBI.

Because of the frequent dismissal of sexual assault cases, the lack of reporting, and the destruction of rape kids, advocates have pressured governments to either extend or abolish statutes of limitations for sexual assault.

Their argument is that the statutes are based upon old ways of looking at sex crimes as well as the traumatic experiences endured by the victims.

For example, in Washington State, there is a 10-year statute of limitation for rape, but the victim has to report it within a year of the incident (2).

Currently, there are 10 states that have gotten rid of time limits on felony sexual assaults, including Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wyoming (2).

And if they can’t get rid of the statutes altogether, they lobby for extensions or exceptions, like DNA evidence, for example.

DNA Testing Has Improved Markedly But It Is Still An Imperfect Science

Recently, the science behind DNA testing has expanded and improved significantly, allowing victims and prosecutors to bring people to justice long after the fact.

DNA doesn’t erode, but memories do. However, proponents of the statutes of limitations say that DNA testing isn’t a perfect science like the way television shows portray it.

This has resulted in whats called the CSI Effect. Television shows have greatly exaggerated the efficiency of DNA testing, and this has had an effect on the way juries evaluate evidence (5).

Even though DNA testing can’t reveal if the sex was consensual or not, it can confirm if sexual activity occurred between the defendant and the complainant.

Where there is DNA evidence, lobbyists and advocates have managed to create a legal exception where the state can prosecute.

Activists argue that the limits on the ability to prosecute threaten other potential victims.

Defense attorneys and other legal experts have argued that the abolishment of the statute of limitations increases the likelihood of a wrongful conviction.

For instance, if someone accuses another of a sex crime twenty years later, the chance of the defendant being able to recall a day from twenty years ago is exceedingly difficult.

Especially, if that day was unremarkable, and the defendant can’t remember anything about it. How can you call upon the witness to defend your witnesses if you can’t even remember the date to which the complainant refers?

EG Morris, the former president of the National Association Of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued that the situation is challenging to work through (2).

It all comes “down on statute of limitations depends in large part on whose perspective you take” (2).

EG opposes the abolition of statutes of limitations.

He added that there is “no bright line” drawn between giving a fair chance of the defendant to defend himself and the rights of the accuser to get justice.

In some cases, prosecutors collect DNA evidence even though there isn’t a match in the DNA database. They use this evidence at a later date by trying to match it with a perpetrator in the following case.

However, this is something civil liberties advocates have argued against, because – like it was mentioned above – DNA testing is shaky and the risks of a wrongful conviction based on faulty evidence is high.

Police have to collect the evidence, analyze it perfectly, safeguard it when its transferred along the chain of custody, and they have to keep it safe from contamination (2).

Even if they manage to do all of the things mentioned above, the chance of human error and environmental changes are present, possibly leading to a wrongful conviction based on faulty DNA evidence.

Either way, prosecutions have used this means as a way of prosecuting a defendant.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a former Manhattan prosecutor, said that drawing the line in the statute of limitations is painful and very complicated (2).

Perhaps Police Departments Need To Handle Sexual Assault Cases Better

Others have argued that the statute of limitations isn’t the problem, it’s the barriers they face regarding how the police and how society looks at them when they report a crime.

Advocates claim that the problem lies with the police departments. If police officers were more sensitive about the issue, more perpetrators could be brought to justice.

If authorities were to be more sensitive in the handling of sexual assault crimes, we wouldn’t have to worry about extending or abolishing the statute of limitations.


(1) Law Cornell

(2) The New York Times

(3) The Boston Globe

(4) Rewire

(5) Balance Careers