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Changes to the Statute of Limitations in California's Rape and Child Molestation Cases


A new California law, SB813, has eliminated the statute of limitations for rape and child sexual abuse charges. Under the old law, prosecution of rape had to commence within 10 years of the crime, and prosecution for child sexual abuse had to commence before the victim's 40th birthday. Under the new law, there is no time limit as to when these types of charges can be brought. The changes affect criminal law only. The new law does not affect the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits.

This change allows "the prosecution of rape, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation, and sexual penetration, that are committed under certain circumstances, as specified, to be commenced at any time," according to California Legislative Information. The change does not impact misdemeanor crimes and lesser felonies.

The Bill Cosby Sexual Abuse Scandal

The California State Legislature was inspired to pass the law in part because of the Bill Cosby sexual abuse scandal, which ignited a public debate about this issue. Allegations that the comedian committed sexual assault surfaced decades after the alleged crimes occurred, so California district attorneys were unable to charge him.

Cosby may have been the poster child for why the change in law was needed, but he won't be affected by it. The law is not retroactive, meaning that cases that have already been barred by the old statute of limitations will not be revived. However, the law does remove the statute of limitations for cases that will not have expired before January 1, 2017.

Reaction to the New Law

Public sentiment has been generally favorable to the changes. Victims' rights groups have applauded the law. Justice, they've said, should have no expiration date.

State Senator Connie Leyva, who introduced the law, said it "shows victims and survivors that California stands behind them, that we see rape as a serious crime, that victims can come forward and that justice now has no time limit."

But there has, of course, been criticism to the change. One problem is that people accused of crimes that occurred decades ago cannot be expected to account for their whereabouts with any precision. Thus, they are limited in how well they can present their defense. Statutes of limitations also encourage prosecutors to bring charges as soon as possible, when evidence is fresh. Without this safeguard, cases could be brought when quality evidence is lacking.

As the Associated Press reported, "Civil rights groups and public defenders countered that extending the time limit could lead to false convictions as evidence disappears and memories fade among victims and witnesses. They say it's not fair to expect a suspect to recall an alibi decades later."

Whatever the ultimate ramifications, the clear upshot of this change is that prosecutions for decades-old sexual assault crimes will begin to occur in California in the years to come. How much of an impact the law will have remains to be seen. If you would like more information about this issue, contact the Law Offices of Scott D. Hughes today at 714-423-6932.

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