Sexual Assault Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations is legislation setting the deadline for filing a civil lawsuit or bringing criminal charges. Civil and criminal cases have discrete statutes of limitations from state to state. Once the statute of limitations passes, a plaintiff can longer bring a claim against the party who wronged them.
Sexual assault cases are one area where states have imposed statutes of limitations for both criminal charges and civil actions. Victims need to know the statutes of limitation for their particular jurisdiction to know whether they can bring charges or file a suit.
Why do statutes of limitations exist?
Governments set a statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases to serve the public’s best interests. These deadlines prevent would-be defendants from being subjected to unfair litigation or prosecution and ensure matters get resolved within a reasonable amount of time.
Evidence and witness statements are vital to the progress of civil cases and the prosecution of criminal cases. Over time, this information diminishes. Records are lost. Memories fade or become fuzzy and therefore are no longer trustworthy. Evidence ages.
Letting cases proceed after this would not be fair and equitable. Without all the facts, judges and juries would be unable to make informed decisions. Inconclusive evidence would carry too much weight, perhaps leading to the wrong outcome. Meanwhile, parties would not have the whole picture to reach a just settlement.
Conversely, some view statutes of limitations negatively because they hinder people’s ability to raise legitimate claims to the court system. Legislators have tried to strike a fair balance when setting the time limits and have even exempted some actions from such deadlines, but the controversy persists.
What qualifies as a sexual assault claim?
A sexual assault occurs when the perpetrator makes physical contact with the victim in a sexual way without the victim’s consent or forcibly orders the victim to engage in or perform sexual acts with them.
The two main components of sexual assault are consent and force.
Consent requires that all parties understand what they are doing and agree to it. One of the main elements of a sexual assault claim is that the victim did not consent to the sexual activity. Consent laws vary by state, but they all have the same general concepts:
- There are protected classes of people deemed incapable of consenting, including minors and those with intellectual disabilities.
- Just because someone consented to sexual acts with an individual in the past does not mean they consent to subsequent acts.
- Consent can be revoked even if initially given, if the person changes mind. Anything that happens after that happens without your consent.
You may have been forced to engage in or perform sexual acts with the perpetrator. This force can be physical, such as being held down or having your hands restrained. Force can also be psychological. You may have been threatened into compliance or feared for the lives of your family because they were the ones being threatened.
There are many kinds of sexual assault. Examples of sexual assault include the following:
- Unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature
- Attempted rape
How do statutes of limitations differ by state?
Most states also have statutes of limitations for sexual assault. States without statutes of limitations for sexual assault include Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia. In these states, a sexual assault criminal charge can be brought against the perpetrator at any time with no cut-off period.
Each state establishes its own statute of limitations. In Texas, the sexual assault statute of limitations is 10 years. In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for sexual assault is 12 years. New Hampshire’s deadline to file a sexual assault claim is six years for aggravated sexual assault and one year for sexual assault.
In some states, sexual assault cases are categorized by degrees, with first-degree offenses — the most serious — having no statute of limitations. And there are exceptions to these statutes in every state, so it’s important to know your state’s statute of limitations for sexual assault if you plan to file a lawsuit against your attacker.
Even if you think your statute of limitations has run out, contact a lawyer. Your case may meet the requirements for an exception.
DNA and Statutes of Limitations
DNA is often key evidence in prosecuting sexual assault cases. Analyzing DNA helps to identify the perpetrator of the sexual assault, thereby increasing the likelihood of a successful criminal conviction.
Over half of states have enacted exceptions to the statute of limitations if a DNA match is made. Under this exception, if a DNA sample is matched, a case can be brought even though the statute of limitations has passed.
For example, Hawaii extended the time to bring a case for sexual assault 10 years past the statute of limitations if DNA is matched. Arkansas eliminates the statute of limitations for a DNA match in cases of rape, which is defined as “sexual intercourse or deviate sexual activity,” only. On the other hand, Ohio does not have a DNA exemption to its statute of limitations laws.
What should I do if I have been sexually assaulted?
Experiencing a sexual assault is traumatizing. Sexual violence affects millions of people every year. Over half of women and almost one-third of men have experienced some type of sexual violence in their lives. Living in the aftermath of an assault can have physical, emotional, and psychological effects.
Remember, it was not your fault if you were the victim of a sexual assault. Don’t hesitate to contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673). And you should also contact an attorney to learn how your state handles the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases.