How Long Does a Rape Victim Have to Press Charges?
The amount of time a victim of rape has to report and press criminal charges against their attacker is called the statute of limitations and largely depends on the state where the crime occurred. The statute of limitations can also be impacted by the age of the victim at the time of the rape, the discovery of DNA evidence, the connection of DNA evidence to a suspect, and the length of time that passes between the crime and the victim’s report to law enforcement.
Cornell Law School defines a statute of limitations as “any law that bars claims after a certain period of time.” Statutes of limitations are determined by individual state legislatures and are applied to criminal and civil cases, including those that involve rape or other forms of sexual assault.
Therefore, the length of time a rape victim has to press charges will vary based on the unique circumstances of their case and on the jurisdiction where the rape occurred.
The beginning of the statute of limitations is typically recognized as the date that an injury or crime occurs. In some cases, though, the clock may not start ticking until an injury or crime is discovered or should have been discovered by a reasonable person.
What Do I Need to Know About the Statute of Limitations for Rape?
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the charge of rape typically involves vaginal, oral, or anal penetration, no matter how slight, of a victim’s body by an object, body part, or sex organ of another person without consent. Fear, anxiety, or embarrassment prevent many victims of rape from coming forward immediately following an attack.
If you’ve been a victim of rape, notifying law enforcement right away ensures that you can decide to press charges now or at a later date if you so choose. A delay could jeopardize your opportunity to seek justice against your attacker if the statute of limitations runs out.
For example, the 10-year statute of limitations in Illinois applies only to rape cases when a victim reports the assault within three years of the date it occurred.
Collecting and preserving evidence at the time of the rape is also invaluable should you decide to press charges. Having a rape kit and examination completed within 72 hours of an assault allows investigators to use DNA evidence from blood, hair, or semen to find the perpetrator, and, in some states, it may extend the window of time you have to file charges.
How Do States Determine the Statute of Limitations for Rape?
Since rape and sexual assault are typically violent crimes, psychological trauma may keep victims from reporting immediately. As a result, the following states have eliminated the statute of limitations for felony rape offenses:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Other states have declared that the statute of limitations for pressing charges against the perpetrator doesn’t begin until a victim has reported the attack to law enforcement, with some states allowing people to come forward months or years after a rape has occurred.
However, a state may reduce the number of years a victim has to initiate legal proceedings when a significant amount of time has passed between the assault and disclosure of the attack to authorities. For example:
- In Utah, victims who know their assailant have an eight-year statute of limitations to press charges as long as they report the rape within four years of the date it occurred. After four years pass, the statute of limitations is reduced to four years from the date the rape is reported.
- Washington state has a 10-year statute of limitations as long as a victim reports within one year of the date of the assault. Otherwise, the statute of limitations is reduced to three years.
Some jurisdictions base their statutes of limitations on the severity of a crime, allowing longer windows for serious felony sex crimes such as first-degree rape or sexual assault. The following states have statutes of limitations that span 21 years or more, beginning from the time that the rape occurred:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
Colorado, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee recognize statutes of limitations between 11 and 20 years for felony rape.
Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Texas cap their windows at 10 years or less.
What if the State Has DNA Evidence of Rape?
There are exceptions to the statute of limitations laws in many states when DNA evidence has been collected during a rape investigation, especially when a perpetrator is not immediately identified.
For example, Florida has no statute of limitations for filing charges when DNA was preserved in rape cases that occurred after 2006. Likewise, victims in Minnesota, Texas, and Utah can press charges indefinitely as long as the state is in possession of DNA evidence from the crime.
With advancements in technology and the creation of state and national DNA databases, it’s no longer uncommon that DNA from a rape kit collected many years ago is suddenly matched to an inmate or defendant arrested for some other offense.
New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wisconsin either suspend or lengthen the statute of limitations in their states when DNA evidence is available, and Delaware has chosen to lengthen its usual five years to 10 in the presence of DNA evidence.
The statute of limitations for rape in New Jersey and New Mexico doesn’t begin until the date that the state is able to identify a suspect when that identification is based on DNA.
Other states have extended the statutes of limitations an additional one to three years after DNA evidence identifies a perpetrator, even when the crime took place many years or even decades before.
Exceptions to Statute of Limitations Laws
Rape cases involving minors or vulnerable adults, such as those who are mentally incapacitated, physically dependent, or elderly may also be exempt from statutes of limitations. For instance, Georgia law extends the amount of time rape victims over age 65 and their families have to press charges from the time that the crime is reported to authorities.
Most states don’t place any statute on sex crimes committed against minors under 14 years of age since their age may have prohibited them from recognizing that a crime had been committed. Additionally, some underage victims are unable to immediately report a sexual assault if they were living with or dependent on their attacker.
A better understanding of repressed trauma has also led legislatures and courts to understand that some child victims of rape may not even remember an attack until years later, and sometimes well into adulthood. Under these circumstances, the statute of limitations may begin when a victim turns 18 or from the date when the abuse was discovered.
A prime example is the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, in which adults in positions of authority or trust groomed child victims and their family members before committing sexual crimes against them. Many of the victims later entered therapy as adults, where their memories of the abuse resurfaced.
In some cases, those individuals have been allowed to press charges years after the sexual assault occurred.
What Should I Do if I Have Questions About the Statute of Limitations in My State?
If you have questions regarding statute of limitations laws in your state and how they pertain to you, it’s best to seek the advice of a victim’s advocacy group or attorney who specializes in prosecuting rape cases in your area.
These professionals can help you understand each aspect of the statute of limitations for your state and give you advice on proceeding with a criminal case. If the statute of limitations has passed for criminal charges, you may still be able to file a civil suit.
Not sure where to find help? You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline and ask for local resources.