December 16, 2016
The State of California has removed the statute of limitations—or time limit—for rape cases after Governor Jerry Brown recently signed Senate Bill 813, which amends the penal code so that sex crimes, such as rape, forcible sodomy, and molestation of a child, can be prosecuted, regardless of how long in the past the crime occurred.
The legislation is believed to have been filed in response to the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. Some of the comedian’s accusers came forward years after the alleged sexual assaults occurred.
Senate Bill 813 reads, in part, as follows:
Existing law generally requires that the prosecution of a felony sex offense be commenced within 10 years after the commission of the offense. Under existing law, prosecution for the crimes of rape, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation, and sexual penetration, if committed against a victim who was under 18 years of age, may be commenced at any time prior to the victim’s 40th birthday…This bill would allow 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.
The current law allows prosecution of felony sex offenses against minors to begin “any time prior to the victim’s 40th birthday.” The new law will be applicable to crimes committed after January 1, 2017.
The Los Angeles Times reported that there are some exceptions if new DNA evidence emerges at a later point.
State Sen. Connie Leyva, who filed the bill, said that 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,” as the Los Angeles Times reports. Leyva also said that the new law told every rape and sexual assault victim in the state “that they matter.”
Those who have advocated for the change say that victims may require years before they can bring themselves to make an allegation to authorities. There were numerous women who testified a legislative hearing on the bill last spring that they didn’t come forward earlier because they were traumatized or afraid no one would believe them. Rape and sexual assault are typically committed by a person known to the victim, which can make it hard to come forward. In addition, some sexual assault and rape victims also often feel shame, fear, and severe anxiety and do not speak to the police until they have confidence or a support system when they are older.
Critics of the new law argue that extending the time limit could lead to false convictions due to the fact that evidence can disappear and the memories of victims and witnesses can fade. These opponents also believe that it’s not fair to expect a suspect to recall an alibi many years later. The California Public Defenders Association says that the time limit motivates victims to come forward and makes investigators to move quickly.