Over the last few years, accusations and charges of sexual assault have become more public and robustly reported in the media. Lately, states have been considering potential changes to their statute of limitations laws.
A statute of limitations refers to the maximum amount of time after an event that a victim can initiate legal proceedings. There are two types of cases – and two statutes of limitations – related to sexual assault: criminal and civil.
Criminal vs. civil cases
In a criminal case, the state charges the alleged perpetrator. If the person accused is found guilty, penalties may include jail time. In a civil case, the assault survivor takes their alleged attacker to court. If convicted, the penalty is usually a monetary award to the accuser.
A civil statute of limitations sets a time frame for survivors who may want to file a claim against a person or organization, while a criminal statute of limitations sets a window of time for criminal charges to be brought against someone.
How the statute of limitations may change
The window of time in question will vary by state and by charge. Any state’s given statute of limitations exists because forms of evidence and witness testimonies may be affected with time. Therefore, enacting a statute of limitations, ideally, will ensure the integrity of a case.
In early March, lawmakers advanced a bill out of the Colorado House Judiciary Committee that would remove the time limit for filing a civil claim of sexual misconduct. Currently, the statute of limitations to make a claim for such offenses is six years in Colorado.
There is currently no criminal statute of limitations for sexual assault of a minor in Colorado. The proposed bill would remove the limit for a civil case as well. This begs the question:
Could the criminal statute of limitations for sexual assault of an adult also be eliminated?
The topic itself is certainly a sensitive one. On the one hand, removing the statute of limitations would give survivors more time to come forward and seek justice. On the other hand, memories become less accurate over time, and this could open the door to false accusations against innocent parties decades after the fact.
It is important that our justice system serve all people fairly. So far, it is unclear how removing this time limit might affect everyone involved.