California Close to Removing Time Limit for Bringing Rape Cases

"There are some crimes that are so heinous that there should never be a statute of limitations."


Joan Barnett Lee/ZUMA Press/Newscom

A bill that passed the California Assembly unanimously last Thursday would entirely remove the state's statute of limitations for felony sex crimes, placing no bar on when a victim of rape or sexual abuse could press charges against their assailant. An earlier version of the bill passed the state Senate with unanimous support in June. The measure is supposedly aimed at ensuring that victims of sexual assault—a crime the U.S. legal system has a notoriously bad record at handling fairly—will better be able to see justice served.

Yet most arguments in favor of the change are nonsensical. Almost none of bill's spokesvictims—nor future victims of similar circumstances—would be helped by it. And the shift has strong potential to diminish future victims' chances of being vindicated, also.

It's unclear whom the bill is actually meant to benefit, really, save for politicians like Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach), who get to make lofty, feel-good statements like: "There are some crimes that are so heinous that there should never be a statute of limitations."

In stories from the statehouse floor, women's groups, and California media, none of the women featured as arguments for the change—rape and abuse victims for whom the statute of limitations has expired, often in situations that provoke outrage—would be personally aided by the new measure, as the shift doesn't apply retroactively. More importantly, most of them would have recourse under existing California law should the same thing occur today. Legal changes that have already been made over the past few decades give new options to rape victims for whom new DNA evidence suddenly comes to light and those subjected to childhood sexual abuse.

As it stands, rape and other felony sex-crimes in California must come to trial within 10 years… except under a host of extenuating circumstances. If new DNA evidence is discovered at any point in time, a victim has a new three-year window to bring charges. If a victim was under 18 at the time the crime was committed, they have until age 40 for the case to be prosecuted. For aggravated rape cases—that's rape that involves a gun, multiple attackers, or serious injury to the victim—a prosecutor can bring charges in perpetuity.

Sure, the current scheme stops short of giving all sex-crime victims an unlimited time to come forward, but that's one criminal justice reform we could do without—for practical, victim-centered, and civil-liberties-minded reasons.

Advocates for the change point out that for murder and embezzlement, there is no statute of limitations in California. But most states do have limits on embezzlement; California is, it seems, the sole outlier. Meanwhile, murder—which is generally excluded from statutes of limitations—is the most permanent and severe sort of violence you can commit against someone, which makes treating it differently than other crimes ethically understandable. But there's also a practical point: murder victims can't report the crime committed against them, and hence have no control over when it is discovered. Sexual assault isn't, generally, a crime that may only eventually reveal itself. In most circumstances, an adult victim will know immediately if they are, in fact, a victim of rape.

Perhaps there is still room for reform—new aggravating circumstances that should negate or lengthen rape statutes of limitations (for instance, the discovery of new video evidence of an assault could, like DNA, trigger a new window for prosecution). But lawmakers and activists aren't pushing for mere reforms, only doing away entirely with statutes of limitations for felony sex crimes.

Statutes of limitations aren't some tool of the patriarchy, though, but a well-intended and well-established legal concept, rooted in widespread ideas about fairness and forgiveness. Punishing someone decades down the road from when they committed a crime goes against our constitutional expectation of due process and violates the idea that criminal sanctions should serve a restorative and rehabilitative function, rather than be purely punitive. Many moral or social-justice codes would suggest someone who commits a crime, repents/reforms, and lives a non-violent and non-criminal life for decades should be forgiven, not put on trial.

But one needn't buy into the whole forgiveness thing to understand why such limits are valuable, only oppose mass incarceration. Questions of fairness aside, we need statutes of limitations on criminal prosecutions because the U.S. justice system couldn't handle the strain otherwise.

And when it comes to rape, removing the statute of limitations will ultimately exacerbate problems with prosecution. The best thing a victim can do in terms of preserving physical evidence—and fulfilling social expectations of victimhood, an unfortunate but real concern when it comes to jury trials—is report the attack as soon as possible. Physical evidence and memories of events both degrade quickly, and waiting—especially more than a decade—to bring a rape claim severely diminishes the chances of conviction. (There are some who will accuse me of "victim-blaming" for this, but there is no blame here, just a belief that there's room to both raise awareness about the varied ways people respond to sexual assault and empower victims to act in ways that will best help them see justice.) If removing rape statutes of limitations makes folks feel there's no rush to report crimes against them, we do future victims a a grave disservice.

I'm sympathetic to the older women speaking out in media now about how stigmatized reporting a rape once was, and how they finally found the courage to come forward after decades—only to find it was legally too late. But we've made much progress on this front in the past few decades, and while American attitudes and policies here can still be bad, more people than ever are reporting rape and speaking up about sexual assault. This is what we need to continue bolstering, not policies that are feel-good and politically-correct at the expense of ensuring rapists actually get caught and convicted.