A bill in the Utah Legislature would extend the statute of limitations from one year to four years for sexual abuse cases in which DNA evidence identifies the defendant.
Under current Utah law, victims of sexual misconduct must prosecute the defendant within one year of confirming their identity through DNA. HB192, which is sponsored by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, would give victims up to four years to start the prosecution process.
The bill received a favorable recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee Feb. 5.
“Rape and sexual assault can affect the rest of someone’s life. This is especially true if the attacker is a stranger and law enforcement is unable to quickly identify who committed the crime,” Arent said. “In these situations, the short statute of limitations is not in the interest of justice for the survivors.”
Utah is currently behind 30 states that either have no statute of limitations or a statute that is longer in cold cases. After DNA is collected, it runs through a federal DNA database called the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS.
“When DNA is collected from the investigation of some of these most violent crimes, a database match will start and a one-year window to file criminal charges opens. Twelve months is often not enough time for a cold case with a new lead,” Arent told the committee.
After a match is found, law enforcement must confirm the person’s DNA matches the DNA in the evidence sample before criminal charges can be filed. In cold cases, the suspect’s location might be unknown and require law enforcement to travel across the U.S. or internationally.
Will Carlson, the chief policy advisor for Salt Lake County’s District Attorney’s Office, said finding a DNA match is the beginning of an investigation, not the end.
“It will often take time for a victim to work through the reality that a crime against them is still unresolved. The delays in confirming a CODIS hit and locating all and communicating with all victims and witnesses make one year unfeasible for cold cases. Other witnesses and evidence may have also become unavailable,” Carlson said.
Krystal Hazlett from the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative said her current project is going back and working on these cold cases. She has over 400 CODIS hits and the oldest kit she has in her project dates back to 1989.
“This will allow us the time to notify the victims and to make sure we put our victims first before moving forward. That gives law enforcement time to move over the case,” Hazlett said. “The four-year period allows that time to take place.”