D.C. should eliminate statute of limitations for sex-related crimes

Updated: Feb. 14, 2017 at 10:50 a.m.

Survivors of sex-related crimes deal with their experiences in their own ways and in their own time frames. Some might confide in friends and family immediately after the incident and some may not tell anyone for decades. A new bill under review by the D.C. Council’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety would eliminate a time limit survivors have to prosecute their assailants.

This bill would put an end to the statute of limitations on sex-related crimes in D.C. The current statute of limitations is 15 years for first-degree sex crimes, such as date rape, or second-degree sex crimes, like engaging in intercourse with someone who could not give consent. Sixteen states, including Virginia and Maryland, have already eliminated the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes. And this is the third time that the bill has been brought to the D.C. Council. The first two times the bill was brought to the Council, it didn’t even get a hearing. Council member and chairman of the Judiciary Committee Kenyan McDuffie last declined to move the bill forward for a public hearing in 2015, citing the committee’s busy schedule.

With sexual assault being such a relevant issue on college campuses and high-profile cases, like Bill Cosby’s, making national headlines, it’s more important than ever for the bill to not only receive a hearing but to become law. Survivors of sex-related crimes deserve to have the peace of mind to seek justice whenever they choose.

Statutes of limitations for all types of crimes are put in place for a reason. A statute of limitations makes sense for things like burglaries and certain civil suits, like fraud or injury, since prosecuting the crimes rely on time-sensitive proof. Evidence – especially DNA evidence – can become less reliable the later it’s found. Testimony from witnesses also becomes less reliable as time passes.

But the statute of limitations for sex-related crimes can have a profound and traumatic effect on survivors. With a time limit, sexual assault survivors have to work against a clock and are pushed into a difficult situation where if they want to report a sex-related crime, they must do so even if the person who assaulted them is still involved in their lives. This is especially relevant for college students living on the same campus as their perpetrators, since they must continue to reside near their assailants and potentially sit in classes with them. This gives survivors opportunities to run into the perpetrators before graduating, which can make survivors feel unsafe or uncomfortable reporting the crimes.

Plus, if survivors chose not to report the incident when it first happened but changed their minds at a different stage of their lives, the statute of limitations prevents them from being able to prosecute once the time limit is up. What someone wants when they are 18 years old is likely not the same as what they want when they are 40. Humans are complex and change their minds over time, and our justice system should reflect how people change.

Eliminating the statute of limitations isn’t going to automatically increase the number of sex-related crime convictions. If a person wants to pursue a case against someone, they have a better chance at getting a conviction by they pursuing legal action soon after the incident. If we were to do away with the statute of limitations, it’s likely that there could be more court cases that end without convictions. But sometimes it’s not about the conviction, it’s about just having a shot at justice.

And if a survivor chose to go to a hospital or to the police after being sexually assaulted and had a rape kit examination performed, any DNA evidence from that rape kit could be used at a later date. There’s only one hospital in D.C. that provides rape kits, which limits how many survivors go through the process.

Of course, not every survivor wants to go through an invasive rape kit exam, and some sex-related crimes don’t have the evidence to prove an assault. But our laws should reflect reality, and the reality is that if one person can go through legal proceedings years after an assault happens and serve justice, they should be able to.

One in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses and one in 16 men are, as well. It’s likely that most of us know someone who’s a survivor, even if they haven’t shared it publicly. It should be up to survivors to decide when they want to tell their stories, how they want to seek justice and when they want to do that. And it’s up to the D.C. Council to give every survivor their day in court if and when they want it.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, homepage editor Tyler Loveless, contributing sports editor Matt Cullen and copy editor Melissa Schapiro.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that D.C. had a backlog of 6,000 rape kits. The backlog of rape kits in the District is unknown. We regret this error.

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