Should Sex Crimes Have an Expiration Date?
At James F. Humphreys & Associates, L.C., we represent people who have been sexually abused and assaulted, and seek to obtain compensation for their injuries. We understand that the criminal justice system often fails to adequately protect vulnerable individuals and deter wrong doers. In part, this failure stems from statutes of limitation (time period within which to bring charges) that are shorter than they should be for crimes of a sexual nature.
Most crimes have statutes of limitations. This means that criminal charges must be brought within a certain period of time, or they cannot be brought at all. Other crimes, such as murder, typically do not have a time limit for bringing perpetrators to justice. In many states, there are time limits for prosecuting sex crimes such as rape, but a growing awareness of how often and why people delay reporting such crimes, and a reexamination of the reasons for such time limits, is causing many people to argue that sex crimes such as rape should not have time limits, or that the limits currently in place should be extended.
In many cases, sex crimes go unreported, if they are reported at all, until it is too late to prosecute them. The phenomenon of delayed disclosure and its causes is now widely recognized. Sexual abuse is a traumatic experience, and many victims, especially those who were abused as children, are understandably reluctant or unable to come forward with their stories. The victim may be ashamed or embarrassed by what happened, or fearful of retaliation by the abuser. In some cases, memories of childhood abuse may be repressed for years until some event triggers them and they re-emerge. In other cases, survivors may have disabilities resulting from their abuse, such as depression, PTSD, substance abuse or alcoholism which make it more difficult for them to report their abuse or seek redress for the injuries it caused.
In cases of rape, the victims may not know who their assailant was because he concealed his identity, or they were unconscious at the time. In cases where the victim was raped, he or she may not even have a memory of being raped because of the effects of a “date rape” drug. Some of the most vulnerable victims of sexual assault are senior citizens who may not be able to understand or remember what happened to them because of dementia or other cognitive problems.
Because of these issues, many victims of sexual abuse never report their abuse, and those who do come forward, often wait years to do so. In fact, the average age for survivors in the United States to disclose their abuse is 52 years of age. Furthermore, studies indicate that up to 80% of people who are sexually abused as children do not report their abuse until they become adults.
All too often, such delays have prevented perpetrators of sex crimes from being prosecuted because the time for bringing charges has expired before victims come forth. Sadly, since perpetrators are often serial offenders who commit many crimes over a period of several years, so an inability to prosecute them for old offenses may leave them free to commit additional assaults in the future. And people who commit violent sexual crimes, often commit other kinds of crimes, including murder.
Statutes of limitation exist because of concerns that evidence may disappear or become unreliable over time. Memories fade, material evidence is lost, and witnesses die or move away. The purpose of time limits is to prevent unjust convictions when defendants cannot mount an effective defense because evidence has disappeared or become stale, particularly memories of long ago events.
But new forms of evidence which do not erode over time, such as DNA evidence, audio and video recordings, emails, texts and other forms of digital communication, are reducing the rationale for limiting the time within which serious crimes may be prosecuted. Of particular importance is DNA evidence which can place a particular person at the scene of a crime, and does not degrade with the passage of time if properly collected and stored.
Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University and sexual assault researcher, notes that DNA evidence, a relatively new form of forensic proof, can generate viable leads in cases that are beyond current statutes of limitation. Professor Campbell worked with the City of Detroit after they found 11,000 rape kits in storage, and tested a batch of kits that were older than the statute of limitations. When this data was loaded into the FBI database for forensic DNA, some of it matched living criminals.
Experts estimate that more than 200,000 untested rape kits exist in the United States, many of which have been resting in police evidence rooms for years or even decades, and given the fact that many states and cities refuse to count the number of untested rape kits in their possession, this number could be much, much higher. Any one of these kits may hold the key to solving a “cold” case that is now too old to prosecute because of an overly short statute of limitations. Meanwhile, the FBI’s ever expanding database of DNA profiles, which now numbers more than 10 million profiles, makes it increasingly likely that a DNA sample can be matched up with a particular person.
In light of these developments, many states have extended the time for prosecuting serious sex crimes, or even eliminated time limits for such prosecutions, especially when DNA evidence is available. In many states, the time for bringing charges for sex crimes is stayed when DNA evidence is obtained. Wondering how your state compares to others? RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) maintains a database of criminal statutes of limitations for all 50 states which is available online.
In addition to criminal actions to punish and deter misconduct, civil actions can sometimes be brought to obtain compensation for victims of sexual abuse. In West Virginia, the statute of limitations was recently amended by the legislature to extend the time to bring civil lawsuits by people who were sexually abused as children until they reach the age of 36. Unfortunately, this change does not help many people who were already older than 36 when the law was changed. Our firm will be working to get the law changed to allow people with otherwise time barred claims for sexual abuse to bring their claims during a one year window.
If you or a loved one has been the victim of sexual abuse, you may eligible for compensation in a civil case. Contact our firm at 304-347-5050 (local) or 877-341-2595 (toll free) for a free initial consultation. You may also reach us through our website, www.jfhumphreys.com. Working with local counsel where necessary, we review sexual abuse cases for possible representation on a contingent fee basis across the nation.
Ali Watkins, The New York Times, March 12, 2019, Old Rape Kits Finally Got Tested. 64 Attackers Were Convicted.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/nyregion/rape-kit-tests.html, available online 2/20/20
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, The Atlantic, July 22, 2019, “An Epidemic of Disbelief: What new research reveals about sexual predators, and why police fail to catch them, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/an-epidemic-of-
disbelief/592807/ Available on line 2/21/20
Caroline Mimbs Nyce, The Atlantic Daily, July 15, 2019, These Attacks Could’ve Been Prevented, https://www.theatlantic.com/news/letters/archive/2019/07/nationwide-epidemic-of-untested…, available on line 2/20/20
Kari Paul, Marketwatch, September 28, 2018, Texts and emails could ultimately help kill the statute of limitations for sex crimes,
RAINN, Addressing the Rape Kit Backlog, https://www.rainn.org/articles/addressing-rape-kit-backlog, available online 2/20/20
RAINN, Understanding Statutes of Limitations for Sex Crimes, https://www.rainn.org/articles/statutes-limitations-sex-crimes, available online 2/20/20
RAINN, Five Things that Make an Effective Statute of Limitations, https://www.rainn.org/articles/five-things-make-effective-statute-limitations, available on line 2/20/20
RAINN, RAINN’S Recommendations for Effective Sex Crime Statutes of Limitations, www.rainn.org
RAINN, State by State Guide on Statutes of Limitations, https://www.rainn.org/state-state-guide-statutes-limitations, available online 2/20/20