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  • Kayla Regan

Statute of limitations: Supporting victims of sex abuse

TW: Sexual Violence

Most people have heard of the common legal principle of statutes of limitations, but just how the limitations apply to sex abuse crimes varies by state. These differences amongst the states make it difficult to decide just how effective statutes of limitations are. In recent years, states have been pressured to review their statute of limitations laws, especially those concerning sexual assault. According to Britannica, statutes of limitations “restrict[] the time within which legal proceedings can be brought . . . .” Statute of limitation laws are, according to Encyclopedia, “designed to prevent fraudulent and stale claims from arising after all evidence has been lost or after the facts have become obscure through the passage of time or the defective memory, death, or disappearance of witnesses.” RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, characterizes a statute of limitations as a clock which “typically starts when the crime occurs; after time runs out, a perpetrator cannot be charged for the crime.” Statutes of limitations have a long history; however, changes in laws affecting statutes of limitations have been the subject of recent headlines.

In March of 2023, state representatives for Ohio introduced a bill with the goal of eliminating the statute of limitations for a person who commits rape and for any civil action brought by the victim of any rape. The bill would also extend the statute of limitations for civil actions involving sexual abuse of a minor from the current two years until the victim reaches 55 years old. Opponents of this bill argue that the elimination of statutes of limitations could induce false accusations.  They argue that such a significant passage of time would create barriers for defendants to address the burden of proof. Supporters of this bill assert that the main benefit of is that victims can seek justice on their own time. Due to the physical and psychological components of sex abuse crimes, especially those that occur during childhood, many victims have difficulty addressing what happened to them.  The extension proposed in this legislation lets victims heal while preserving their right to seek justice in the criminal legal system. 

Michigan is another state that recently revised its laws by eliminating the statute of limitations for second-degree and third-degree criminal sexual assault. The effort by Michigan lawmakers to revise the laws comes in the aftermath of the high-profile sexual abuse cases involving Larry Nassar of Michigan State University, and Robert Anderson of the University of Michigan. Other states and territories (Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Ohio (Boy Scout survivors only), Vermont, Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam) have enacted lookback windows or revival laws as part of their statute of limitations reform. As Child USA describes, 

“A window is a law that revives previously time-barred civil claims for child sex abuse and allows survivors of all ages to file suit while the window is open. Similarly, a revival age limit law allows many survivors to bring suit for previously expired claims up until they reach a certain age.” 

For instance, in New York, the Adult Survivors Act created a one-year lookback for sexual assault victims who were over the age of 18 at the time of the assault to sue their abusers. New York had also previously enacted the Child Victims Act in 2019, another one-year lookback law for survivors of child sex abuse. As of late November 2023, there were over 2,500 cases filed under the Adult Survivors Act. The overwhelming number of cases filed shows the need for these revival laws and highlights the ineffectiveness of the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes.

With many states reviewing their statute of limitation laws concerning criminal or civil suits in support of victims, there are others considering the opposite. According to FOX 7 Austin, the state of Texas is considering changes to their statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases from 30 years to 15 years for institutional defendants. A change from 30 to 15 years for statute of limitations is drastic for the victims. Laws like these will only enable child sex abusers and make it harder for those survivors to seek justice.

Currently, 10 states have abolished the statute of limitations for all felony sex crimes. It is positive to see other states making reforms both criminally and civilly to support victims. So, what makes an effective statute of limitations concerning sex abuse crimes? According to RAINN, each state should ask the following: Has your state eliminated the statute of limitations for all of its most serious (felony-level) sex crimes; Does your state limit a victim’s window for justice if they choose not to report to law enforcement; Does your state law include a DNA exception; Does your state extend the SOL when the victim was a child; and Do your state’s statutes of limitations also take into account extraordinary circumstances? These questions are certainly a good starting point for states, and hopefully, as reforms become more frequent, victims will feel more supported by their state governments. Changes to statutes of limitations for sex abuse crimes will certainly impact criminal law practitioners, but these reforms are necessary.

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