Statutes of Limitations and Sexual Assault
The sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby have focused attention on statutes of limitations for cases involving rape, and whether or not they should exist at all. Statutes of Limitations are written laws that restrict the maximum time after an incident that criminal charges may be initiated. This applies only to bringing charges; once a defendant has been charged, there is no longer a statute of limitations issue. Not all crimes have a statute of limitations. Murder has none, and in many states, sexual crimes have none. However, in Colorado, there is a statute of limitations on sexual assault cases, which has come up recently in the Cosby assault allegations, as several victims are Colorado residents.
In Colorado, the statute of limitations for sexual assaults involving an individual over 15 years old is 10 years. To be clear, this means that a sexual assault allegation must be reported to law enforcement within 10 years of the incident. Recently a group of victims spoke to end this practice, and like many states allow no limitation or extend the limitation for bringing charges in sexual assault crimes. Because what these individuals experienced was so long ago, they have little legal recourse now that they feel safer coming forward.
Why Some Advocates Want No Statute of Limitations
Many victim advocacy groups wish to extend or even eliminate the time limitation in these cases because the consequences of these crimes are serious and far reaching. Many studies indicate years of recovery for victims and potentially lifelong physical and psychological ailments as a result of victimization. By removing limitations, advocacy groups argue that more evidence may be reviewed and more cases may be connected, providing stronger leads and better cases for arrest and prosecution.
In the case of the alleged Cosby assaults many of the victims did not report their experiences initially and it is difficult to know how much physical evidence remains to review. However, the fact that so many have come forward lends strength and credibility to the accusers and may bolster a legal case. This is another vital factor in extending these limitations. Victims are often traumatized and unable to come forward in what is judged as a timely manner. Therefore increasing the time to report allows the victim more opportunity to seek justice.
Advances in DNA, and other forensic advances also support the notion that these limitations should be extended. As with murder, technology evolves and evidence may be kept until such time as to be able to better test it; and sexual assaults are serious felonies that often involve repeat perpetrators who remain a threat. Colorado addresses the evidence issue within their statute. As long as a sexual assault has been reported to law enforcement within 10 years of the incident, there is no statute of limitations on that case being prosecuted, even if the identity of the defendant is not determined within the 10 year period by DNA or other investigation. In other words, as long as the incident is reported, it will be pursued to the best of investigators' abilities, even if it takes more than 10 years. And Colorado was the third state to enact a law requiring every rape kit be tested within 21 days and requiring that backlogged kits also be inventoried and tested.
Why Statute of Limitations are Appropriate
There are many arguments as to why we should have statutes of limitations. First of all, swift justice is desirable for everyone involved in a case. We don’t want to have cases linger indefinitely in the criminal justice system. The statute works to encourage victims to report immediately and for police to investigate promptly. Delays in reporting by victims can handicap prosecutions as more and more time goes by. Prosecutors will always have to overcome the hurdle of explaining why the victim didn’t come forward immediately - not always an easy question to answer to the satisfaction of a jury.
Practically speaking, most cases can and should be filed within the statute of limitations. We are usually talking about a period of years by which time the state must make a charging determination. Most cases are filed within days or weeks of the incident, which is ideal. Police officers and prosecutors will always have new cases and investigations come in. It is a societal goal that these cases get handled efficiently, to make way for the never-ending, fresh caseload.
Colorado has made great strides in investigating rape kits, as well as having a statute that already addresses the fact that some rape cases will take longer to prosecute. With decreasing stigma around reporting rape and more support for prosecuting perpetrators, our state statute works well to protect the rights of victims and defendants. Many in Colorado see extending the limit as a way to support victims further, but will likely not eliminate it in order to continue to protect defendant’s rights. Our justice system works to strike a balance between the needs of the victims and the rights of those accused, and statutes of limitations help to maintain that balance.