Crime & Justice

California could lift statute of limitations on rape charges

A view of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. The state legislature has announced it will suspend provisions of the Brown Act public meeting law in an effort to shave 96-million in spending over the next three years.
A view of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. The state legislature has announced it will suspend provisions of the Brown Act public meeting law in an effort to shave 96-million in spending over the next three years.
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A group of Southern California women are headed to Sacramento to ask state lawmakers to get rid of California's statute of limitations on sexual assault claims.

Five of the women have accused comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault, but at least some of the alleged crimes are too old for prosecution. A state bill, SB 813, authored by Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino) would abolish all legal deadlines for rape, sodomy, lewd, or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation and sexual penetration. The bill is set for a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Public Safety Committee. 

Leyva said too many rapists go un-prosecuted because of California's time restrictions.

“What I’ve heard opponents say is that people shouldn’t have that hanging over their head for the rest of their life, said Leyva. “I tend to disagree.  The victim has it hanging over their head for their whole life.”

In California, unless new DNA evidence surfaces, victims and prosecutors generally have ten years from the date of the crime to file felony sexual offense charges.

Those limits have left many of Cosby's accusers unable to have their cases pursued in criminal court. 

Lili Bernard is one of them. 

Bernard reported her rape, which she says happened in the 1990s, to Atlantic City police in New Jersey last year, but the statute of limitations there, has run out. 

“Why should a victim be blocked from presenting evidence and presenting their witnesses in a court of law just because of some arbitrary time restraint,” said Bernard. 

In January, Los Angeles County prosecutors declined to charge Bill Cosby with sexually abusing two teenagers in 1965 and 2008, citing time limits and a lack of evidence.

Critics of the bill say lack of evidence is a key reason why statutes of limitations exist. 

Memory fades with time and witness testimony can become unreliable.

“Critics would say that we should limit the risk there by imposing a time deadline,” said Chapman University criminal law professor Larry Rosenthal. ​

He said current law also provides exceptions to the limitations—for example, when the victim is a minor, a sex offense case can be brought any time before the victim’s fortieth birthday.

On the other hand, Rosenthal said repressed memory, reluctance to report and threats from predators are legitimate barriers that victims face in trying to meet the statute of limitations for rape and other sex crimes.

Bernard said she has saved a lot of evidence to prove her rape case against Cosby but she says he threatened her if she came forward.

“I was suicidal,” she said. “When you are trying to heal from PTSD, from suicidal ideation, from the sickness that comes with the rape, the last thing you thinking of is trying to go to the police and report a crime against someone who is threatening your life.”

Leyva said similar bills have been filed and died in appropriations committee because of extra costs that could come with filing more charges and sentencing suspected rapists and sexual predators.

California has no statute of limitations for murder or embezzlement of public money.