California lawmakers just passed a law that eliminates the "statute of limitations"--i.e., the time limit--for filing sexual assault charges in California.
The law, known as SB 813 or the "Justice for Victims Act," was inspired by the recent wave of allegations that the actor Bill Cosby sexually assaulted multiple women decades ago. Most of these allegations could not lead to criminal charges, including in California, because statutes of limitations had expired.
Under existing California law, there was a ten-year statute of limitations for bringing charges of most sex crimes. This means that prosecutors could only charge someone with a sex offense within ten (10) years of when the crime was alleged to have occurred. (There were exceptions to that time limit for cases where new DNA evidence was found, or where the victim had been under eighteen when the crime occurred.)
This new law changes that. Now there will be NO statute of limitations for bringing charges of the following California felony sex crimes:
- Most cases of PC 261 rape;
- Most cases of PC 262 spousal rape;
- Most cases of nonconsensual sodomy under PC 288;
- Certain forms of lewd acts with a child;
- PC 288.5 continuous sexual abuse of a child;
- Most cases of nonconsensual oral copulation under PC 288a; and
- Most cases of forcible penetration with a foreign object under PC 289.
What this means is that prosecutors can charge you with one of those crimes decades after it is supposed to have occurred. Prior to the passage of this law, that was something that could only happen with cases of murder, or felonies punishable by death or life in prison.
SB 813 will apply to all crimes committed after January 1, 2017, AND to all sex crimes whose statute of limitations will have not yet run on January 1, 2017. (In practice that means it will apply to most sex crimes committed on or after January 2, 2007.)
The "Justice for Victims Act" is a feel-good law for politicians and people who have not had the misfortune of dealing with the criminal justice system. But California defense attorneys, and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, are deeply concerned about the potential negatives of SB 813. It becomes much harder to defend against unfair charges when more time has elapsed since the crime has taken place.
Imagine learning that you are being charged with a sexual assault that took place 30 years ago, of a victim you barely remember meeting. Would you remember where you were and what you had been doing? Would you even know who to call as a witness on your behalf? This kind of situation is particularly unfair to lower-income defendants who may not have the resources to hire a top-notch criminal defense attorney.