Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers proposed a bill to broaden the rights of sexual assault victims. In a surprising turn of events, one of the bill’s lead sponsors asked that the legislation be rejected. A 5-0, bipartisan vote put an end to House Bill 20-1296 (HB 1296).
HB20-1296 Revises Civil Statute Of Limitations For Sexual Assault
In February 2020, Colorado lawmakers introduced HB 1296. If passed, the bill would have made legislative changes for survivors of sexual assault seeking to file civil lawsuits.
The main provisions of the bill include:
- HB 1296 defines sexual misconduct.
- HB 1296 eliminates the legal deadline for survivors of sexual assault to file civil lawsuits.
- HB 1296 allows a survivor of abuse to sue a person, organization or institution that is not the perpetrator of the abuse. For example, a victim of clergy abuse could not only sue the abusive priest but also the responsible diocese that covered up the abuse.
HB 1296 also eliminated several provisions from the current law:
- HB 1296 no longer requires a victim of a series of sexual assaults to confirm which act in the series caused the victim’s injuries.
- HB 1296 no longer caps damages in older cases of sexual misconduct.
- HB 1296 no longer prohibits a victim who is a person under disability or is in a special relationship with the perpetrator of the assault from suing against a defendant who is deceased or incapacitated.
Critics Argue For Retroactive Measures
Despite its noble cause, the bill was criticized by many victim advocates. The bill extends the legal rights of two groups:
- The bill extends the legal rights of sexual assault survivors who are still eligible to file a civil lawsuit based on the statute of limitations.
- The bill extends the legal rights of future victims of sexual assault.
However, HB 1296 does not retroactively apply the new provisions to past cases. Critics argue this bill doesn’t help sexual assault survivors whose cases are expired.
A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs are determined at the state level and vary based on the crime.
Some states have passed legislation similar to HB 1296. These bills extend or eliminate the SOLs for victims of child sex abuse or sexual assault. However, many of these bills either apply retroactively or open a “look back” window. HB 1296 did not contain such measures.
During a “look back” window, any survivor may file a civil lawsuit against an abuser no matter how long ago the incident took place. As of June 2020, 18 states have created “look back” windows to revive expired cases of child sexual abuse or sexual assault against minors.
These “look back” windows allow survivors to seek legal action years after the abuse took place. Victims of abusive scout leaders, teachers or Catholic priests can seek legal justice for abuse that occurred decades ago.
HB 1296 Is Rejected
HB 1296 advanced through the Colorado House with few amendments. In June, it was introduced into the state Senate. The bill was assigned to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on June 9, 2020.
Four days later, state Senator Julie Gonzales asked the bill to be voted down. Gonzales was a lead sponsor on the bill. The committee complied with Gonzales’ request, and the bill was rejected 5-0.
Gonzales’ reasoned the bill did not include a retroactive measure.
“I’m not willing to pass a bill that lets perpetrators off the hook. I will not settle for watered-down justice. I believe we have to do better. All victims of sexual assault deserve to see their abusers held accountable.”
Gonzales intends to propose future legislation that includes a legal “look back” window. According to The Colorado Sun, Gonzales wants to create legislation that would “allow prior child sex assault victims to sue to their accusers as other states have done.” However, some lawmakers and legislature’s attorneys believe such retroactive measures may violate Colorado’s constitution.
Many victim advocates and supporters of the bill were disappointed by the decision to vote it down.
“This is the third time in the last 15 years that this policy has come before this body. And this is the third time that this body will decide to take no action to create a pathway for survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault that can provide them with the resource they need to recover from the trauma they experience.”
Gonzales’ decision to kill the bill came at the end of the 2020 Colorado legislative session. Lawmakers, survivors and victim advocates will have to wait until the next session for a chance to change the state’s child sex assault laws.
Civil Action Statute Of Limitations Sexual Assault, House Bill 1296 (Colorado 2020).
Paul, J. (2020, June 12). Effort to give Colorado child sex assault survivors unlimited time to sue abusers is rejected. The Colorado Sun.
(2020, March 6). National Overview of Statutes of Limitation (SOLs) for Child Sex Abuse. ChildUSA.