Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Sept. 28 a bill that eliminates the statute of limitations for rape and related offenses.
The Justice for Victims Act (Senate Bill 813), authored by Sen. Connie M. Levya, ensures an indefinite time limit for the prosecution of sex offenses such as rape.
Previous California legislation required rape cases to be prosecuted within ten years of the alleged crime, unless new DNA evidence surfaced after the ten-year limit. This ten-year time limit is known as a statute of limitations.
Levya said the bill will allow victims to pursue justice whenever they feel ready to come forward, as victims often take time to process trauma and gather courage before approaching law enforcement.
“Survivors of sexual assault should always have the ability to seek justice in a court of law, even years after the alleged crime was committed,” Levya said in a press statement. The bill, Levya said, will “help to ensure that rapists and sexual predators are not able to evade justice simply because of a shortened statute of limitations.”
The bill is linked to the sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, who has been accused of committing a variety of sex offense by over 60 women.
Several of Cosby’s alleged victims testified in favor of the bill at legislative hearings and press conferences.
Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents Cosby’s accusers, said that California’s statute of limitations prevented her clients from having their cases heard.
“It was too late for California prosecutors to file a case even if they concluded that they had sufficient evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Allred said of Cosby’s alleged victims in a press statement. “Even though it was too late for these accusers, we decided that we should work to change the law to help others.”
For many anti-rape advocates, the bill is an important milestone; it was signed just four weeks after the early release of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who was convicted on three counts of sexual assault, and is one of several bills introduced in the California legislature addressing rape and sexual assault.
However, the elimination of the statute of limitations has raised concerns as well. Charles Anderson, law professor at UCLA School of Law and former criminal defense practitioner, said that eliminating the statute of limitations could lead to a wider margin of error when prosecuting rape cases over ten years after the alleged crimes.
“The more that time passes, the greater the likelihood an unjust outcome may be reached,” Anderson said in an email.
“There is an increased danger that a person who reports being a sexual assault victim after so many years may have a distorted memory of the event.”
Such “unjust outcomes” may include wrongful convictions of rape, as was the case with former football player Brian Banks. Banks served five years in prison before it was found that the alleged victim had fabricated her story and Banks’s conviction was overturned.
Despite these potential consequences, the Justice for Victims Act was passed with bipartisan support as Cosby’s allegations became a hot-button issue. According to Anderson, the bill “would not be happening right now if it were not for the Cosby case.”
However, Cosby and other alleged sexual offenders will not be tried for cases whose statutes of limitations are already expired. The Justice for Victims Act will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017 and does not apply retroactively.
A version of this story appeared on p.5 of the Thursday, October 6, 2016 print edition of the Daily Nexus.