Removing the Statute of Limitations on Sexual Crimes
By State Senator Martha Fuller Clark
Over my lifetime, I have seen American society come to realize just how horrific crimes like rape and sexual assault are. The impact on victims can be measured, not in traumatized days and months, but in years and decades. The psychological impacts are multiplied by difficulties encountered keeping jobs and maintaining relationships. Often memories of such horrific assaults only surface years later, after countless hours of therapy and support.
We have also learned that rapes and sexual assaults are less likely to be perpetrated by strangers preying on strangers. It is much more likely, we now know, to be perpetrated by a family member in familiar surroundings or by a colleague in the workplace.
And while rape remains egregiously underreported, we now know that efforts in recent decades to encourage reporting have brought more cases to the attention of the courts without the recriminations that were so often present in the past. As we have begun to take the impacts of sexual assault on victims and their families much more seriously, we are also seeing that the way police, prosecutors, court personnel, and medical professionals interact with victims of rape and sexual assault has been changing as well.
One thing that has not changed, however, is one of the most important threshold questions asked when someone comes forward: When did the attack take place? In New Hampshire, if a victim answers with any date before (as of this writing) January 21st, 2011, the reporting officer might just as well stop writing, crumple up the form they were filling out and aim for the recycling bin. There is nothing that that officer or any prosecutor or judge in the state can do in such a situation. Because the alleged crime was committed over six years ago, no case can ever be brought against the accused perpetrator, thanks to our current statute of limitations. This law must be changed. That is why this year I have filed legislation (SB 98) to end New Hampshire's harmful and arbitrary six year statute of limitations for sexual assault claims.
Statutes of limitations serve a purpose in property crimes. No one thinks that police should spend years tracking down a stolen car or investigating an act of vandalism. People file an insurance claim, purchase a new vehicle, and move on with their lives. Statutes of limitations also stop prosecutors from holding charges over a suspect’s head for years without proof. There are hundreds of classes of criminal cases that don’t merit remaining prosecutable for an indefinite period. Sexual assault and rape is not one of them.
Nationwide attention to the arbitrary nature of short statutes of limitations has recently received much greater public attention. Most notably, in the last year, as a result of claims leveled against Bill Cosby for rape and sexual assault going back forty years. A number of Cosby’s alleged victims have come forward, in the wake of others speaking out, only to find themselves without legal recourse against the comedian due to such statutes of limitations. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only two in 100 rapists will be convicted of a felony and spend any time in prison. The other 98 percent will never be punished for their crime. (Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, Dept. of Justice publications, 2009)
California, undoubtedly in response to the Cosby case, has just recently joined a number of other states in seeking to remedy this egregious situation by passing legislation ending such statutes of limitations without opposition. It is time for New Hampshire to reform its laws as well.
Once armed with the ability to bring such cases long after the six-year limit, I am confident that prosecutors in our state will be able to put more rapists behind bars and stop sexual offenders, who are routinely discovered to be serial offenders, before they can reoffend. This means fewer rapes, fewer women – and men – being victimized, and fewer New Hampshire lives shattered by sexual violence.
For those wishing to support this effort, SB 98 and SB164 (companion legislation covering sexual crimes against minors) will have a hearing before the Judiciary Committee next Tuesday, January 31 at 9:00am in Senate Hearing Room 103 in the State House. The Judiciary Committee can also be reached at 271-3092.