Statutes of Limitations on Crimes Against Children

An NCA Policy Brief


What is a statute of limitations?

A statute of limitations (SOL) is the maximum amount of time one has to bring a lawsuit from the time of injury or other grounds for a lawsuit either criminal or civil.  SOLs vary from state to state and from claim to claim.  It may be different for specific crimes and it may begin running at differing times, usually either from the time of injury or from the time of discovery of the injury.

Why is SOL important in child sex abuse cases?

Research shows that most people who experience sexual abuse in childhood do not disclose until adulthood. Therefore, narrow statutes of limitation can prevent the punishment of perpetrators on the criminal side, and prevent redress on the civil side.

 

Criminal Law

Civil Law

Deals with crime and punishment Deals with disputes between individuals, organizations, or both
Purpose is to maintain stability in society Purpose is to allow the alleged victim to seek compensation for a wrong
Suits are brought by the government Suits are brought by a private party
The alleged victim is not a party in the suit because the crime is considered a crime against society as a whole The alleged victim is the plaintiff, a party in the suit
Standard of proof: “Beyond a reasonable doubt” Standard of proof: “A preponderance of evidence”
Defendant is innocent until proven guilty The plaintiff must produce evidence beyond the balance of probabilities
Only the defendant can appeal a court’s verdict Either party can appeal a court’s decision

Civil and Criminal cases are not mutually exclusive.  Both can be brought for the same act.

States may have different statutes of limitation for criminal and civil laws.

Differences may exist in both the terms and the duration.

 

Which states have removed statutes of limitations to allow victims to seek justice?

Map of state statutes of limitationsfor child abuse: states with no criminal SOL, states with no civil or criminal SOL, or states with an SOL that prevents some adult survivors of abuse from seeking justice.

Statutes of Limitations: Legal Terms

Tolling

If a statute of limitations is “tolled”, it means that the clock does not begin running until a certain event occurs other than the actual injury.  This event is most often when the victim reaches the age of 18.

Discovery

In some states the statute of limitations does not begin running from the date of the actual injury, but rather from when the victim “discovers” the injury.

“Window Legislation”

Establishes a specified duration of time during which civil claims can be brought that would have otherwise been barred by a statute of limitations. Civil suits can provide justice and compensation for victims. Also, because perpetrators often have multiple victims over a long period of time, identifying them publicly can cause other victims to come forward. When new victims come forward, it may be possible for prosecutors to identify an event for which the criminal SOL has not yet taken effect, allowing the alleged offender to be criminally charged.

 

Retroactive Revocation of Statutes of Limitation

In Criminal Cases

The SOL cannot be supended to retroactively apply to cases for which it has already passed. Once a statute of limitations expires, a perpetrator cannot be criminally charged.

In Civil Cases

The SOL can be suspended retroactively at the will of the legislature. “Window legislation” is one way in which a legislature may suspend the civil SOL.

 

Next Steps

As CACs participate in the investigation and prosecution of crimes against children, statutes of limitation are of great concern.  As we learn more about the trends in the reporting of child sex abuse, states are beginning to rethink their statutes of limitations in such cases.  Child abuse advocates should fight to have statutes removed, and closely monitor any developments or reform efforts in their states.

To develop a customized strategic plan for pursuing a civil immunity statute, state Chapters can contact the NCA Government Affairs Department. Email Will Laird at wlaird@nca-online.org to start your plan now.