California Lifts Statute of Limitations on Sex Crimes, AKA, Screw You Bill Cosby | Vol. 3 / No. 48.5

The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), was signed into law 28 Sept. | Photo: Jon Connell, CC BY 2.0 

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So the original plan for this week was to watch the debate, and then discuss the gender dynamics in the debate. Then I missed most of the debate. But in the 45 minutes I did get to watch, I made 11 angry Facebook posts and used Caps Lock twice, so I decided rather than actually send myself into stress-induced heart failure before the age of 30, I would write about something that actually made me happy. Then I waited three days while trying to come up with something, because the world is kinda sucky right now.

Then, as if the world heeded my call for good news, I saw that California, prompted by the wave of accusations against Bill Cosby that will never see the light of a courtroom, had passed a bill removing the statute of limitations on some sex crimes, most notably rape and child molestation.

I’ve written before about the ridiculous range of statutes of limitations in various states when it comes to sexual assault. Prior to now, California had one of the more “sexual assault survivor friendly” ones, in that the statute of limitations for rape was 10 years unless new DNA evidence was found (meaning that if California ever gets around to testing their rape kit backlog, which sits at somewhere between 8,998 and “we have no fucking clue,” the cases that result from DNA evidence in the kit would be exceptions to the statute) and molestation cases had to be prosecuted before the survivor turned 40, giving the survivor roughly 22 years of adulthood in which to consider bringing an accusation to the police.

But statutes of limitations only really work with a pattern of crime, punishment, and plaintiff behavior that doesn’t mesh with sexual assault cases. The assumption is that a plaintiff will bring a complaint against the person who has done something wrong within a “reasonable” amount of time, because if they have a valid complaint they will want to work hard to see it addressed. So if someone steals your car, you will want that addressed pronto; you’re not going to take the bus for twenty years and then suddenly walk into the police station and announce that your car has been stolen. However, sexual assault cases frequently don’t follow that pattern. Many sexual assault survivors don’t want to press charges until years later, for a variety of reasons. As Jazmine Uloa writes,

[S]upporters said the new law would help victims who are often reluctant to report the abuse to police until many years later. Rape and sexual assault are typically committed by someone victims know, making it difficult to speak out, lawyers and advocates said. Many victims also often experience shame, fear and extreme anxiety and don’t come forward until they have the confidence or a support system later in life.

When someone’s car is stolen, that person is usually not asked what they were wearing when the car was stolen. They aren’t asked why they drove their car at all if they knew it could be stolen. They aren’t asked why they’re claiming their car was stolen this time if they’ve let someone borrow their car before. They aren’t lambasted for renting a new car while the report of the last car’s theft is being processed, or for being seen smiling in photographs a few days after their car was stolen. They aren’t asked why they’re trying to ruin the life of the person they are accusing of stealing their car. They aren’t asked why they didn’t bite the thief while the thief was stealing their car. Their car (usually) isn’t stolen by someone they trust, like their romantic partner, or their relative, or their religious leader, or their long-time friend. No one tries to convince them that stealing their car is actually a sign of affection. The thief usually doesn’t text the person they stole from the next morning saying, “Hey, thanks so much for giving me your car, I had a great time. 🙂 Wanna get coffee sometime?” Basically what I’m saying is that there are a loooooot of reasons a sexual assault survivor might take a long time to come to the point where he or she is confident in coming forward. As in, “longer than ten years” a long time.

Now if my internet/Law and Order marathon-based understanding of the legal system is correct, the change will only affect crimes that occur starting next year, or crimes whose current statutes of limitations wouldn’t have expired by January 1st, as California can’t make the law retroactive because of a little thing called clause 1, Article I, Section 10 of the US Constitution. So if you raped someone 11 years ago and there’s no DNA evidence, congrats scumbag, you’re safe. If you rape someone on January 2nd and they catch you January 2nd, 2028, you’re hosed.

Of course, just abolishing the statute of limitations won’t magically improve the chances that a rapist is brought to justice; as Megan Reynolds points out, just two out of every hundred rapists are actually convicted and see jail time (or one out of every fifty for those simplified fraction enthusiasts in the audience). I sincerely doubt that the ninety-eight rapists who never see jail time are walking free just because they benefit from a strict statute of limitations. Still, it’s a step forward, and a legal precedent for other states to hopefully do similar things. The fewer barriers there are between a sexual assault survivor sharing his or her story and his or her rapist seeing punishment, the more likely it is that survivors will come forward.

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Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to find the good in an otherwise abysmal week, she studies gender in popular culture.

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