Five Things that Make an Effective Statute of Limitations

Sexual violence can fall into many crime categories, usually depending on the age of the victim and the degree of violence or force used—that can make comparing states pretty challenging. It’s important to know that most states have different statutes of limitations for each category of crime. For example, a state may have a strong law to protect the interests of child victims, but may only leave a short window for adult victims to pursue justice.

How does your state’s statute of limitations compare? Here are a few questions to ask state policymakers about the strength of your state’s statute of limitations. Lawmakers can refer to RAINN's Legislative Guide on Reforming Criminal Statutes of Limitations.

1. Has your state eliminated the statute of limitations for all of its most serious (felony-level) sex crimes?

According to the FBI, rape (a felony sex crime) is the second-most serious crime, just behind murder. About 10 states have abolished statutes of limitations for all felony sex crimes to allow a perpetrator to be prosecuted at any point, as long as there’s enough evidence to win a conviction. If your state is one of the 40 that still has a statute of limitations for felony sex crimes, the time limit should be as long as possible, in order to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable. Is your state doing all that it can to ensure the criminal justice system can keep perpetrators of sexual violence from committing more crimes?

In the fall of 2016, California abolished its statute of limitations for almost every type of sex crime. On its passage, state Sen. Connie Leyva remarked that the bill signaled to every victim “that they matter and that, regardless of when they are ready to come forward, they will always have an opportunity to seek justice in a court of law. Rapists should never be able to evade legal consequences simply because an arbitrary time limit has expired.”

  • RAINN recommends: All states should eliminate their statutes of limitations for at least the most serious (felony-level) sex crimes.

2. Does your state limit a victim’s window for justice if they choose not to report to law enforcement?

Many state policymakers have come to understand how the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of sexual violence can influence how and when a victim reports a crime. Despite this, some states reduce the amount of time when a charge can be brought against a perpetrator if a victim doesn’t report within a set period of time.

In Washington, for example, if a victim does not report the crime to law enforcement within one year, the statute of limitations may be reduced from 10 to three years. This type of law is outdated and runs counter to the public interest. Washington is one of five states that limit survivors’ access to justice in this way.

  • RAINN recommends: A state’s statute of limitations should not be affected by the timing of a report filed with law enforcement.

3. Does your state law include a DNA exception?

DNA evidence has become a routine part of investigating and prosecuting all types of crimes, and is often an important tool for achieving justice in cases of sexual violence. DNA evidence, most often collected through a sexual assault forensic exam, often called a rape kit, enables law enforcement to efficiently pinpoint and pursue charges against an individual. As DNA evidence has strengthened and improved the criminal justice system, states have expanded the way DNA evidence is used.

When DNA evidence is properly collected and stored, it does not erode over time, unlike memories. The long-lasting nature of DNA evidence has encouraged a majority of states to carve out exceptions to laws that allow statute of limitations to “toll,” or pause, when DNA evidence has been identified. In other words, no matter how much time is left, the discovery of DNA evidence can allow prosecutors to pause the clock.

Florida is an example of a state which tolls a statute of limitations when DNA evidence is found. In Florida, when DNA evidence identifies a suspect the statute of limitations for most of the state’s sex crimes is expanded indefinitely. These types of DNA exceptions ensure the criminal justice system has enough time to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable for their crimes.

  • RAINN recommends: States should include exceptions to statutes of limitations so that the clock can toll or continue upon the discovery of DNA evidence.

4. Does your state extend the statute of limitations when the victim was a child?

As the effects of child sexual abuse are better understood, it’s important to update laws to ensure that child victims have the necessary time to recover and decide how to engage with the criminal justice system. Some states have carved out exceptions to statutes of limitations to offer extensions when the victim of the crime is a child. The way states allow these exceptions varies widely.

For example, in Arkansas the crime of rape has a 6 year statute of limitations if the victim is an adult, but if the victim was a minor at the time the rape occurred, the statute of limitations is unlimited. This law is an example of a state recognizing that children are a vulnerable population, one which needs further protections.

  • RAINN recommends: States should eliminate the statute of limitations when any child under 18 is a victim of a felony sex crime.

5. Do your state’s statutes of limitations also take into account extraordinary circumstances?

Crimes of sexual violence are often as complicated as they are heinous. They require careful, thoughtful investigation and prosecution.

A majority of states have built exceptions into their statutes of limitations for specific situations to allow the clock to pause. For example: what can be done if an accused rapist flees the state where the crime occurred and remains a fugitive until the statute of limitation has expired? What about when court documents and paperwork have been lost or delayed for reasons outside the control of prosecutors? Should clerical errors be allowed to keep victims from seeking justice?

New Mexico has a number of these exceptions, including ones that pause the statute of limitations when paperwork related to the crime is being filed with a court, when any paperwork necessary to prosecuting the perpetrator is destroyed or lost, or when the perpetrator has fled or moved out of the state.

  • RAINN recommends: States should carve out provisions in statutes of limitations to account for these complicated circumstances. Policymakers should evaluate these laws with an eye for ensuring a fair chance at justice for every victim of sexual violence.

Statute of limitations laws in your state

Find your state’s laws in RAINN’s State Law Database and learn more about statute of limitations laws.

RAINN works with the law firm of Hogan Lovells who offer pro bono support to maintain a database of each state’s statute of limitations for all sex crimes.