California ends statute of limitations on rape, but it won't apply retroactively

Prompted by allegations made against celebrity Bill Cosby, California is ending its 10-year statute of limitations on rape.

Current California law requires prosecution for rape to begin within 10 years of the alleged offence, with some exceptions. Under the new legislation, SB813, there will be no time limit. The change will also apply to crimes for which the statute of limitations has not expired as of 1 January 2017.

Senator Connie Leyva, who introduced the bill, said it told victims of sexual assault that they could seek justice "regardless of when they are ready to come forward".

"Rapists should never be able to evade legal consequences simply because an arbitrary time limit has expired."

Historical cases (such as many of Cosby's victims) are not addressed in the bill, as it will not apply retroactively to crimes that reach the 10-year-limit before Jan 1, 2017. Which is to say, Dec 31, 2006 is the last date for crimes to escape the new legislation.

The U.S. has a patchwork of state-level sexual assault laws, with 43 applying a statute of limitations to rape. The lengths differ widely: Minnesota has the shortest, at 3 years, whereas Ohio's is 20 years.

Notable Replies

  1. I've always been puzzled over the statute of limitations for rape. I'm happy to see that this has been changed but i have mixed feelings on the non-retroactive part.

    I'm a bit ignorant over what laws can be established on a federal level vs state level. Why isn't the statute of limitations set on a federal level?

  2. States' rights.

    I'm going to look at this as a glass half full situation. The law works this way a lot: the new rules apply from here forward, not retroactively, and I can rationally understand why. So I'm going to focus on the fact that one state has recognized the problem with imposing a time limit on a violent crime as if it were a property crime, particularly due to the fact that it's a crime which has a tendency to make the victims afraid to speak up when they're most vulnerable.

    Meanwhile....the limit in Minnesota is THREE YEARS? Holy shit.

  3. Yeah, any retroactive changes are going to invite ex post facto challenges. It's possible, as @robertmckenna notes, that it would survive a challenge, but, when you consider that somethings would have gone from prosecutable, to not, the back to being prosecutable, how that might raise constitutional issues. Probably better not to risk the challenges and get what you can get, safe from an obvious potential constitutional defect.

    As to those questioning why have a statute of limitations at all for some crimes, it's not about violent vs non-violent. I think you'll find that it goes to ability to prove/disprove the accusation, and the fairness of that, as time goes on. Obviously if the ability to prove a thing deteriorates, that problem solves itself, because there ought to be no prosecution if there's no clear ability to prove it (witnesses died, evidence deteriorated, etc). But it becomes a problem when it has a profound negative effect on the accused to defend themselves.

    This obviously applies to any crime, and isn't specific to rape. Even Murder, which has no specific statute of limitations, has various defense tactics to argue that charges should be thrown out due to inability to fairly defend against them.

    And think about it. If you're questioned about where you were on May 3rd, 2016 (this year), while you may not know offhand, you can likely, possibly with some assistance, reconstruct that information, possibly provably. If it's May 3rd, 2013 (over three years ago), that's a LOT harder, and in some cases impossible (though, perhaps for serious crimes, that may be still something that we decide it's worth pursuing, with a heightened scrutiny and more accepting of "reasonable doubt"). Moving to something like May 3rd, 2006 (over 10 years ago), You likely have no idea, can't prove anything, and, are at a serious disadvantage towards being able to make any factual assertion.

    You can see how the passage of time makes it difficult for an innocent defendant to mount a defense. That's just one example of one piece of evidence. Witness recollections fade, clothing and physical items that might be pertinent have been thrown out or lost, for entirely legitimate reasons.

    It's a major deal to accuse someone of a crime, and, doing so when they have been put in a position of inherit inability to defend themselves has some serious constitutional issues all by itself, in terms of giving them a fair trial. We balance that with the seriousness of the crimes, but, at some point, even the ad hoc introduction of additional assumptions of doubt at trial don't compare with the bright line rule that a statute of limitations provides.

  4. It's not an interstate commerce issue. The federal government simply doesn't have the authority to harmonize SOLs because they relate to a state's specific definition of a crime.

  5. Unfortunately, these days being convicted of a sex offense means being permanently, irrevocably marked.

    No matter what you do to atone, no matter how deep your remorse, you will be, forever, a special class of unperson.

    You can murder a thousand people, and all the state will do is kill you. They won't treat you as badly as we treat sex offenders.

    And of course a teenager who sexts another teenager is guilty, and thus will be marked for life.

    The whole system is broken. Just kill them, it'd be more merciful.

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