A California bill proposing to eliminate the 10-year statute of limitations on rape and child molestation charges has passed in the Senate Public Safety Committee. That committee had, in the past, refused to move through similar bills.
The new bill sponsored by Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, passed the committee on a 4-0 vote . The passage came after testimony from sexual assault survivors and others, including Los Angeles lawyer Gloria Allred, who represents 30 of the Bill Cosby accusers.
The American Civil Liberties Union objected to the change, saying charges could be brought after witnesses’ memories had become cloudy, evidence has faded and witnesses have become harder to locate.
But proponents point to the state’s backlog of over 6,000 untested rape kits and the emotional difficulties survivors have in coming forward at all. For many victims of abuse and assault it can take decades to deal with the shame, trauma, and fear that follows a sexual assault.
And people accused many years after an alleged assault are not without recourse. Their attorneys can use the time period to make their case for reasonable doubt to the jury. As it is, sexual assault cases are often difficult to prosecute. There’s already a strong disincentive on the part of both prosecutors and victims to bring weak cases. For a survivor to hear a jury say they don’t believe her/him can be devastating. So it’s unlikely cases will be brought decades after the fact absent extremely strong evidence.
Other states have statutes of limitations ranging from 3 to 30 years or more. Some have no limit at all provided there’s DNA evidence or the crime is particularly serious.
A bill recently approved by Oregon lawmakers, for instance, would split the difference by eliminating the state’s current 12-year limitation in cases in which there is hard evidence (such as DNA) or multiple accusers.
But regardless of the number of years added to the statute of limitations, any increase is good news for survivors. Their voices can be silenced for years as they come to terms with what happened to them, especially if they were drugged or were very young when the assault occurs.
If the bill passes, it would not apply retroactively to crimes as to which the old statute of limitations has already passed. So Bill Cosby will still not be charged with sexual assaults in California.
But such a law would give extra time to people who are nearly at the end of the ten-year period and struggling with the decision whether to move forward. It would also give the state time to catch up with its backlog of rape kits.
Most importantly, it will give future victims of sexual assault time to work through the difficult issues they face. And by allowing more time to bring prosecutions, perhaps we will encourage more victims to come forward. In turn, that should give courage to still more survivors. And with the stigma of coming forward removed, we may not need the longer statute of limitations at all.
And that sounds like a win/win.