Statute of Limitations
Every state has a legal deadline called a statute of limitations. These deadlines dictate when a person can no longer file a lawsuit against their abuser. Although efforts are being made by some state lawmakers to extend statutes of limitations, acting early is beneficial.
A statute of limitations is a law that determines the deadline for filing a legal claim. The limitation period is often dictated by a number of factors:
- Filing deadlines vary by jurisdiction.
- Filing deadlines vary based on the type and severity of the claim.
- Filing deadlines may be centered around a specific date such as the date of the incident.
Statutes of Limitations by State
Statutes of limitations are determined by state lawmakers and therefore vary from state to state. Within each state, there may be different laws for criminal versus civil claims, the degree of the crime, and the age of the victim. Because of this, state laws pertaining to sexual assault can be overwhelming for a survivor to wade through alone.
Civil Lawsuits for Criminal Offenses
Some states have extended civil statutes for criminal offenses. This means that although a survivor of sexual assault may not be eligible to press criminal charges because of an expired deadline, they might still be able to file a civil lawsuit against their abuser.
New York recently passed the Child Victims Act (CVA). This bill extended the filing deadlines for sexual abuse committed against minors. The CVA mandates that a survivor of childhood sexual assault can file a civil lawsuit against their abuser any time before the victim reaches 55 years of age. In New York, this means a survivor has 27 more years to file a civil claim after they forfeit their right to file a felony criminal charge against their abuser at age 28.
Tolling: Extending the Statute of Limitations
Tolling is an extension of a statute of limitations. The limitations period can be stopped and restarted for a number of reasons. These are a few common reasons for a statute of limitations to be extended:
- A deadline may be paused if a suspect leaves the state. The limitations period would resume when the suspect reenters the state.
- A deadline may be paused if the victim is a minor.
- A deadline may be paused if a victim is mentally incompetent.
Recent Changes to State Statutes
Increasing protections for survivors of childhood sexual assault has been a focus among legislators in recent years. In 2019, the following states amended their statutes of limitations for sex crimes against minors:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
Why Do Statutes of Limitations Exist?
A statute of limitations is meant to protect the fairness of legal proceedings. The more time that passes between a crime and legal recourse, the more likely evidence may deteriorate, including witness testimony.
However, in cases of sexual abuse where it may take a survivor years to process the trauma of the incident, critics argue that a shorter deadline restricts the legal rights of survivors. Several states — such as New York — have recently extended their statute of limitations for victims of sexual assault, recognizing the time survivors may need before they are ready to seek legal recourse.
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