The legal statute of limitations has been a key player in recent allegations of sexual assault and the trial of Bill Cosby. Although many women have come forward, only one was able to press charges because of the statute of limitations on the crime.
A statute of limitations is the time allowed after an offense or crime for the victim to file a court case. These time limits vary by crime and state. In Utah, crimes such as a capital felony, murder, rape and manslaughter can be prosecuted at any time, while others such as incest or forcible sexual abuse, must be filed within eight years of the offense, according to the Utah Code.
Lawyer and BYU School of Communications director Ed Carter said it is important for people to be informed about the statute of limitations because then they understand there is a limit on their ability to bring evidence forward, and they can be encouraged to present it as soon as possible.
“I generally think that’s a good societal purpose that we should all understand — that we as citizens have that duty to provide evidence,” Carter said.
Deputy County Attorney Ryan Peters said there were three main factors behind the creation of the statute of limitations. He said the goal is to prevent evidence from growing stale, encourage those who have been victimized to move quickly with reporting a crime and to prevent prosecution of long-dormant crimes from causing “more cruelty than justice.”
“Statutes of limitations are in place historically because when someone’s committed a crime, then they move forward and possibly rehabilitate themselves,” Peters said. “It gives people the opportunity to move on with their lives.”
Peters said victims who come forward after the designated time limit often cannot receive the justice or closure they need.
Crimes involving children, such as sexual abuse of a child, aggravated sexual assault of a child, child kidnapping or child abuse homicide, typically do not have a statute of limitations, even if the same crime does when it happens to an adult.
Peters said this is because children under 14 cannot legally give consent under the law, no matter what. He said legislatures have this law to protect what they deem “the most vulnerable portion of the population.”
In Utah, forcible sexual abuse has a statute of limitations of eight years, while rape and aggravated sexual assault can be prosecuted at any time. Peters said this is because while forcible sexual abuse involves any touching under the clothing of protected areas, aggravated sexual assault includes factors such as threat of bodily injury or kidnapping, a dangerous weapon or more than one person.
Carter said difference in the timetable for prosecuting crimes may exist because there is a greater injustice created with more severe crimes.
“What we’ve set up is this balancing act between people being able to go forward with their lives with some guarantee that the old things aren’t going to come back and haunt them, but that’s balanced against this need for justice,” Carter said.
Even when the reporting of a crime falls within the statute of limitations, Peters said it does not mean an accusation will always result in filing charges. There are other factors involved as well.
“Sometimes we do have to make the hard decision and say, ‘I realized this happened 20 years ago, and I believe it happened, and I can tell from my experience with you that it happened, but without more, I don’t have the evidence to think I can have a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” Peters said.