A statute of limitations is a legal term used to describe statutes that specify the amount of time a plaintiff is allowed in which to file a civil lawsuit. It can also refer to the amount of time a prosecutor has to file a criminal complaint against a defendant.
The purpose of a statute of limitations is to establish a deadline for filing lawsuits, in order to protect defendants from untimely litigation. Additionally, bringing an untimely claim could result in the loss of evidence by a defendant necessary to defend themselves against the claim.
Each state has their own statute of limitations for various offenses. Sexual abuse is one such offense, and is generally broken down into three types: child sexual abuse, rape, and aggravated sexual abuse. In California specifically, there are technically statutes of limitation on some of its sexual abuse crimes. These technical statutes of limitation require that lawsuits be brought within a certain time period.
Of course, there are loopholes that generally allow most anyone to bring up a sexual abuse lawsuit, even once the statute of limitations has expired. However, it is important to note that the statute of limitations that applies to the abuse claim being made is the one that was in place at the time of the crime itself. Thus, although the statute of limitations may have been lengthened in the time that has passed since the crime, if the limitation has run out it cannot be reactivated.
If you are the victim of sexual abuse, it is absolutely imperative to immediately decide whether you are pursuing legal action. You must decide whether to pursue something criminally or civilly, because the statute of limitations is usually different between the two.
In California, you must file a civil claim of childhood sexual abuse within eight years of the age of majority, i.e. before your twenty-sixth birthday. However, California has adopted an extension of the statute of limitations based on the discovery of child sexual abuse, and its effects.
Nearly every state has a suspension of the statute of limitations while someone is a minor. California, along with many other states, have implemented these new discovery extensions that have been designed specifically for cases involving child sexual abuse.
These discovery rules allow for civil lawsuits to proceed when they are “within three years of the date the plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by sexual abuse.”
The purpose of such rules is to counter the problem of prosecuting molesters whose victims had repressed memories long after the statute of limitations would expire. These memories are often discovered through therapy and can have repercussions that outlast a statute of limitations. In California, upon the discovery of these memories of abuse, a person has three years to file a claim.
There is no statute of limitations in California for criminal cases. A prosecutor may file a charge of aggravated rape at any time, as California defines aggravated rape as rape involving a weapon, more than one person, or that seriously injures the victim. Prosecution for non-aggravated sexual abuse, has a statute of limitations of six years. However, there is an exception for DNA analysis. If a DNA test can prove, conclusively, the identity of a rapist, prosecution can take place within one year of the discovery.
Additionally, California’s statute of limitations for a civil action for sexual assault used to be two years, but recent California state legislation (Assembly Bill No. 1619) has changed the statute of limitations for sexual assault to 10 years after the last act or attempted act of sexual assault. Additionally, the civil action may also be filed within three years of the date that the injury was discovered, similar to the abuse describe above.
As previously mentioned, child molestation is considered its own subsection of sexual abuse. In California during the 1990s, legislature passed a bill that retroactively waived the statute of limitations on all crimes of child molestation, meaning that even those previously immune to prosecution could suddenly be arrested. The Supreme Court recently ruled this as unconstitutional and overturned the law, eliminating the law’s retroactive provision.
There is now a ten year statute of limitations on child molestation in California. The crime can also be prosecuted within one year of whenever the victim reports the crime to the police, even past the ten year mark.
Additionally, California has enacted a law that allows for lawsuits against people whom were aware of unlawful sexual conduct and failed to take action in order to protect the victim(s). This was done mainly in response to the Catholic church abuse scandals.
If a person was aware that their “employee, volunteer, representative, or agent” was engaged in unlawful sexual conduct, and they failed to take “reasonable steps” to prevent it, a plaintiff has one year upon discovery to sue that person or entity.
Each state has their own specific laws and statutes of limitations regarding sexual abuse, so you will need to find a knowledgeable and qualified criminal attorney in your own state to ensure a civil lawsuit is filed correctly and in a timely manner. In regards to California law, a California attorney will be able to assist you in determining whether your case can proceed according to the statute of limitations.