A proposed bill could end the statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes in D.C.
The legislation, proposed by Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh on Jan. 10, would end the current time limit on prosecuting cases of sexual assault, including for rape and child abuse crimes, as well as other felony sex crimes.
Under the current D.C. code, there’s a 15-year statute of limitations for first- and second-degree sexual abuse crimes. Other crimes, like child sex-trafficking, child pronography and incest, have a statute of limitations of 10 years after the victim has turned 21, according to a release on Cheh’s website.
The bill was moved to the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety and is now under review. Once it passes the committee, it will move to the Committee of the Whole in the Council.
Cheh said under the legislation, all survivors in cases that have not reached trial yet will have more time to identify and try perpetrators.
“My view is, and I assume the view of my Council when we finally move this bill, is that we shouldn’t have people committing those crimes and be able to avoid responsibility waiting for the clock to run out,” Cheh said.
Cheh said that although it may be difficult to find evidence for sexual abuse crimes in which a significant amount of time has passed, she hopes having no statute of limitations will bring more perpetrators to justice.
“If a lot of time has passed, it may render things far more difficult to bring to prosecution, but at least there will be an opportunity to hold somebody to account,” Cheh said.
Cheh said she does not expect much opposition to the bill within the Council, but added that some may be concerned about a lack of evidence when handling older cases that could be reopened under the proposed law.
More than 30 states do not have statutes of limitations for some sex crimes, and some states do not have statutes of limitations for any sexual abuse cases.
GW extended its statute of limitations from six months to two years in 2013 after students lobbied the Title IX office for the change.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email that the University looks forward to following the bill as it works its way through the legislative process but declined to say if removing the statue of limitations would affect the Title IX office, how the removal would affect students and if the Title IX office supports the bill.
Jocelyn Jacoby, the co-president of Students Against Sexual Assault, said eliminating time limits on reporting sex crimes helps sexual assault survivors because their cases against perpetrators can be stronger.
Jacoby said that even if the legislation doesn’t pass, the proposal sends a message that the D.C. Council prioritizes sexual assault survivors.
“The most important thing after trauma is giving people options and giving them their power back and any way that the D.C. government can prove that it’s on board with that is a huge symbolic and pragmatically meaningful step,” Jacoby said.
Bailey Bystry, SASA’s self care chair, said many factors, including that many survivors know their perpetrators, could keep them from initially reporting their assaults. A statute of limitations for these crimes discounts survivors’ experiences, she said.
“‘This happened too long ago. Your testimony is no longer valuable and we can’t pursue justice for you,’ is a very negative message to send to survivors,” Bystry said.
Douglas Sparks, a D.C. attorney who has represented sexual assault victims in D.C., said he is skeptical that the proposed legislation will pass. Cheh proposed similar legislation in both 2013 and 2015, but neither bill received a hearing.
Sparks said a survivor may be kept from reporting an assault out of fear that he or she could be stigmatized.
“Certainly if it’s a minor, they may feel that they are going to get in trouble,” Sparks said. “Most of them have to do with the fact that no matter who they are, they are concerned about whether they will be believed or be blamed.”