Understanding the Statute of Limitations on Sexual Assault Cases

Understanding the Statute of Limitations on Sexual Assault Cases

Author’s note: This article discusses sexual assault.

As any survivor of rape knows, it takes a lot of courage to come forward about an attack. Survivors are often met with scrutiny, victim blaming, and sometimes anger when sharing their stories. There’s a huge stigma surrounding rape, and not many people are willing to talk openly about it. Law enforcement hasn’t always been particularly helpful towards rape victims either, as exemplified here, here, and here. All of these issues contribute to why survivors will often hide their rape for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, those that do choose to eventually come forward and take legal action against their rapist, are often met with yet another obstacle: the statute of limitations.


What is the statute of limitations?

The statute of limitations is a “time limit” for criminal charges and lawsuits. It keeps prosecutors from charging a criminal past a certain number of years after the crime has occurred, and prevents people from filing lawsuits after a specified amount of time as well. Some felonies, such as murder, have no statute of limitations, while others vary by state.


How can the statute of limitations negatively affect rape cases specifically?

Because of the stigma surrounding rape, many victims are afraid to come forward to friends, family, and law enforcement about their assault. However, some victims later realize they do want to press charges against their rapist, especially if other victims have started coming out and talking about being attacked by the same rapist. This is what happened in the Bill Cosby case; 41 women reported being assaulted by Cosby, but only one woman, Chloe Goins, has a case that occurred recently enough to potentially be covered in California’s statute of limitations. She is the only one so far able to charge Cosby for his wrongdoings, despite the fact that there are 40 other women wishing to bring their cases to justice as well.


Have any states eliminated the statute of limitations for rape?

According to this map, “34 states and Washington, DC, have statutes of limitations on filing rape or sexual-assault charges”. The statute varies from three years in Minnesota, to thirty years for sexual assault offenses in Louisiana. States also vary when it comes to DNA samples; some statutes can be extended if a rapist’s matching DNA sample can be found, while others can be cut short. In Arizona, for example, there is no statute of limitations on reporting rape, but there are time limits for a DNA match to be found.


How can the statute of limitations be lifted or changed?

A statewide bill must be proposed in order for change to occur. This bill must then be approved by state legislature, and then passed to the governor of that state for a final say. If the governor supports the bill, he can sign it into action. If not, the bill is vetoed, and it returns to the state legislature, where it is either amended to the governor’s liking and hopefully approved, or tossed aside in favor of other bills. The statute of limitations for rape cases can be changed; it’s just not easy.

Fortunately, change is coming. Nevada has already extended their limitations to twenty years, after Lise Lott Lublin came forward about her alleged rape by Bill Cosby. Hopefully, more states will begin following suit soon.

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.