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How Long Is the Statute of Limitations on Sexual Abuse?


Is it too late to file charges against someone for a sexual crime committed years ago? That depends on several factors—including where the crime occurred, the age of the victim, and other variables.

A statute of limitations on sexual abuse exists to protect innocent people from wrongful prosecution. In practice, it can sometimes do the opposite—shielding guilty parties from justice. But that’s changing—through increased social awareness and ongoing legal reform efforts.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when considering a legal process like this. It can be difficult for victims of sexual abuse to come forward at all. But prosecuting a sexual criminal is gradually becoming easier and more effective.

Read on to learn more about the statute of limitations on sexual abuse.

Criminal Statutes of Limitations: Overview

Statutes of limitations are laws that place time limits on prosecuting someone accused of a crime. In the United States, these laws depend on local state policies.

The time limits aren’t applied in the same way in all cases. For example, in some states, the statutory countdown begins when a crime occurs. In other states, it begins when the victim files a report.

There are other factors involved beyond the timeline. For example, if DNA evidence is acquired during the investigation, some states will pause or extend the timeline in case the perpetrator is later identified by DNA matching.

Some states also consider whether the victim was a child when the crime took place. If so, there may be additional extensions applied to the statutory time limit. This is because children generally are less able than adults to know when they have been victimized—and less able to tell others about the crime.

Historical Background

Society is in a state of constant change. This change occurs in all areas, at different rates. In terms of criminal law, some of the more relevant domains undergoing change are psychology, forensics, and medicine.

The study of physical evidence itself—or forensics—is relatively new. It changes rapidly, as the courts discard old methods implement new ones. Before forensics, crimes didn’t leave much evidence beyond witness testimony.

During this same period of history, psychological concepts like post-traumatic stress syndrome were unknown. Even now, memories and witness testimony are notoriously unreliable. As a result, “unreliable witness testimony” has long been a concern for the courts.

To protect innocent people from being wrongly accused, laws or statutes were put in place to protect people from wrongful prosecution based on faulty evidence. With modern scientific and cultural developments, some of these statutes are being changed to provide help to victims—past, present, and future.

Is There a Statute of Limitations on Sexual Abuse?

Some states do have statutes of limitations on sexual crimes, while others do not. There is a searchable database of state-level statutes of limitations on sexual crimes. This database is maintained through a joint effort between The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and the Hogan Lovells law firm.

A second data set of related civil statutes is maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Legal Options for Victims of Sexual Abuse

There may be legal “remedies” available for victims of sexual abuse. These can include compensation from state agencies, as well as civil actions. Civil suits can seek victim protections, damages, and other options.

While the human impact of sexual abuse can have lasting effects, victims do have options. If you want to know what you can do, it’s best to seek legal assistance from qualified experts.

You Have Allies

Contemporary society is increasingly aware of the scale and harm of sexual abuse crimes. This trend will likely continue as cultural and scientific awareness increases.

Laws are meant to protect both victims and those innocently accused of crimes. Therefore, a statute of limitations on sexual abuse does carry benefits. But there is still a great deal of progress to be made toward a fair system of accountability.

If you’ve been impacted by sexual crimes, one of the most important things to know is that you have allies.

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