California considers eliminating the statute of limitations in rape cases

California makes the news for the rafts of new laws they always seem to be passing – frequently by referendum – but this month they’re wrestling with one which deserves a broad airing and may be coming to other states soon. (This one already exists in more than a dozen states, by the way.) Under a new bill which is currently awaiting the governor’s approval, the statute of limitations would be eliminated in cases of rape and sexual assault. There’s little doubt that the Bill Cosby case is feeding into this move, but it’s hardly a proposal without merit. (Washington Post)

California has become the latest battleground in a nationwide push to relax or eliminate the statutes of limitations on sexual-assault crimes, recently passing a bill that would make it the 17th state to allow rape victims to pursue charges at any point after an attack. Gov. Jerry Brown must approve or veto the measure by month’s end…

Some lawmakers argue that statutes of limitations arbitrarily cut off victims, who sometimes take years to process an attack or work up the courage to come forward. Others say that opening the door for decades-old accusations could encourage false reports with flimsy evidence. The existing law, they note, already makes exceptions for new DNA matches.

“The statute of limitations is there for a reason,” Natasha Minsker, director of the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy, told the Los Angeles Times. “When a case is prosecuted literally decades after the event, it becomes much more … difficult to prove that you are wrongfully accused.”

Some of the bill’s proponents aren’t helping their cause with the hyperbole already being injected into the debate. The article quotes state senator Connie Leyva as saying, people are starting to realize rape is a serious crime. I don’t know any serious person who doubts that actual cases of rape are not only serious, but horrific offenses, or doesn’t want to see the animals committing such acts punished. (My apologies to all of the actual four legged animals out there for the unfair comparison.) Such arguments detract from the serious nature of the discussion.

But none of that should take away from the real debate here. Should there be a statute of limitations for rape? Or for that matter, for any crime? I’ll first acknowledge that my gut reaction to statute of limitation laws has always been one of revulsion. When you draw an arbitrary line in the sand for how long a person has to report a crime or how much time can expire before police bring charges, you inevitably wind up with frustrating cases which land on either side of that limit. You mean yesterday it was a viscous case of assault but tomorrow it won’t be? For a long time that was pretty much my default take on the question.

But at the same time, this is one of those issues where I’ve learned a lot from debate opponents and have at least come to see both sides rather than sticking with my original, default position. I know that my own memories of things which took place decades in the past is becoming less and less reliable in my fifties. This applies to details from some rather key events in my life which I’d once have thought would stick with me forever. But the science is clear on this point: the human memory is fallible and the error rate increases over time. Also, you can never eliminate the possibility that someone is flat out lying because of their own biases or an ax they’d like to grind. After a period of time, damaging testimony simply becomes less reliable, so I can see the argument in favor of having a statute of limitations.

Some discussions taking place on this subject have mentioned the possibility of “relaxing” the statute of limitations concept and perhaps there’s some merit to a compromise. In the bad old days, a lot of the evidence being offered relied on eye witness testimony as I mentioned above. And yes, people’s memories do fade over time and our firmly held recollections may turn out to be faulty or colored by other information we pick up along the way. But we live in the digital age now, with cameras being almost everywhere. In the future, it may well be far more likely that an old clip from a cell phone or security camera could emerge (or be saved) which could speak strongly to the events surrounding a crime long after some arbitrary seven year mark has passed. Could we construct a law saying that eye witness testimony was no longer allowed past a given time limit, but audio, video and still picture evidence was still fully admissible? As the article notes, several states already allow admission of DNA evidence past the time limit and this could just be an expansion of that idea.

As technology advances we have more avenues of providing evidence without relying on flawed or even biased tales. That could allow a prosecution to move forward with at least a reduced fear of poisonous and potentially false testimony. It’s something to think about anyway.