Dear HuffPo: Here’s why we have statutes of limitation

 

So we took a few minutes just now to check out some headlines with Google’s “Fast Flip” news browser (which, by the way, is super-cool). And this headline totally caught our eye: “Some Sex Crimes Get a Pass – Why?”

That’s a damn good question! What do you mean, some sex crimes don’t get prosecuted — that’s appalling! Either the crime is something society doesn’t think worth punishing, or prosecutors aren’t doing their job! So we checked it out.

What we found instead was a totally inane article on the Huffington Post, leading off with the following lines:

Sometimes the simplest sounding questions spark the most profound discussion.
What’s our purpose on earth?
Why is the sky blue?
Why do we have a statute of limitations on sex crimes?
I mean, really, why give the criminal any break at all? By placing a limit on how far back the prosecutor can go to punish a sex predator aren’t we telling countless victims that the justice system doesn’t apply to them?

The author, one Diane Dimond (titled “Modern day journalist,” whatever that means), asked around and got some decent answers. Connecticut defense attorney Mickey Sherman explained that statutes of limitations protect people’s right to be notified in a timely manner that they could face criminal charges. Prosecutors from New Mexico and California explained that legislatures decide how long a statute of limitations ought to be, reflecting what the people think is fair.

So what did Ms. Dimond conclude?

I came away thinking the real answer as to why we allow this is because that’s the way it has always been done.

Fortunately for the rest of us, she and victim advocate Wendy Murphy have a solution:

Someone … needs to confront the head of the judiciary committee in every state legislature where the time limits are short and ask only one question: “Why do you want a child rapist to EVER stop looking over his shoulder, wondering if the cops have finally caught up with him?”

There is no Statute of Limitations for murder or treason and I would submit sexual assault is just as life-damaging and heinous a crime. Let’s demand we abolish this foolish statute.

Hmmm. How about we don’t.

First of all, if you’re concerned about a child rapist, the clock won’t even start ticking on that statute of limitations until the kid turns 18. That, plus the 7- 10- or 15-year period most states have, would probably be plenty of time for someone to bring it up.

Second, nobody in their right mind disputes that rape can be a horrible thing. But to equate it to murder or treason (which in the U.S. means trying to get Americans killed in wartime) shows a remarkable lack of judgment and perception. Nothing is as remotely “life-damaging” as forcibly taking the life of another.

See, there’s a concept that some things really are worse than other things. Not everything is equally bad. Shoplifting is not a good thing, either. Do you want to have to “look over your shoulder” for the rest of your life because you stole a pack of Fruit Stripe twenty years ago? Of course not.

No, at some point you’re going to want to be able to just get on with your life. At some point, society is going to recognize that you need to move on without worrying about whether you could face criminal penalties — which typically involve the loss of liberty and property.

Also, if society really wanted to punish you for your offense, and if the victim really wanted to go after you for it, then it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. If nobody has bothered to bring it up for ten years, should you really be forced to worry about someone springing that gum theft on you ten more years from now? Of course not.

We as a society recognize that this would simply be unjust. And that’s why we have statutes of limitations. Not because “that’s the way it’s always been,” but because that’s what we happen to think is fair.

Now the statute of limitations for stealing a pack of gum is going to be pretty short. It’s not the crime of the century, so if anyone wants to prosecute you for it they’re going to have to do it within a year or two.

As crimes get more and more severe, their limitations periods get longer. The absolute worst crimes — taking another’s life, and warring against one’s own society — get no limitations period.

Rape is pretty damn bad, though. So most states give it a pretty long limitations period — 7, 10 or 15 years are common.

And guess what: Some states actually don’t have any limitations period for the worst rapes. Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia all permit the worst rapes to be prosecuted at any time. That’s 19 states that already do just what Ms. Dimond wants.

Does that mean the other states are backwards or wrongheaded? Of course not. One of the beauties of American government is that people in different parts of the country get to write their own laws, to reflect their own local mores. Something that’s a crime in New Mexico might be perfectly legal and encouraged in Ohio. The people, through their elected legislatures, get to write the laws that suit them best. And as times change, they can modify their laws as they see fit.

So the fact that New York has a 5-year statute of limitations means that’s how long New Yorkers are willing to give for an adult victim to come forward, the police to figure out whodunit, and charges to be filed. If New Yorkers thought it would be fair to all concerned to extend that period, they could do so. Or they might decide that Utah has it right, and reduce the time to 4 years.

By all means, if you think a law should be changed, write your legislators and tell them so. But try to give them better reasons than what the HuffPo posted there.

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15 Comments

  1. Comment from a Facebook friend, April 23, 2010:

    an inane article on a tabloid? with a really grabby headline to suck you in? shocking. Some sex crimes should not be crimes, like consensual sodomy, consensual PDA’s in desolate places, etc

  2. Michael Allen, January 26, 2011:

    I don’t think limitations should exist on anything. The arguments you raised weren’t any stronger than the Dimond statement, “That’s the way it’s always been done.” Why are limitations so important? What does the passage of time have anything to do with the fact that there once was a victim of a crime and you were the perpetrator of that crime? Maybe evidence can arise years down the road, then it’s too late to convict when someone might have wanted to convict for a long time. They just didn’t have what they needed to prosecute. In crime, things are hidden all the time. The tough job that detectives have is to find what they need to prosecute. Law seems to be on the criminal’s side rather than the law abiding citizen’s.

  3. Jessica, October 9, 2014:

    My case took two years to finish, and that was with the guy turning himself in, and pleading guilty. Shame on you for using a stick of gum analogy. I prayed for a year to die and tried to kill myself afterward. Some things are worse than death. What about all the women who can’t get the labs to run their kits (all over the country: it’s been the topic of news stations nationally), and their rapists get off because of that stupid statute: and then they finally find out the same man would have been found guilty of several rapes that weren’t tested. Some women are in lifelong therapy groups: and we haven’t even gotten in to the women who have been threatened and are too scared to come forward. Even later contrition does not absolve a person of the due diligence of their punishment. Shame on you. You are exactly why people think lawyers are slimy, morally repugnant.

  4. Shame on You, November 18, 2014:

    Okay so rape isn’t equivalent to murder but it is to stealing gum? You’re disgusting.

  5. Elle, November 19, 2014:

    This entire thing is disgusting. I agree with the above poster. You are a very disgusting human being. Equating rape with stealing a pack of gum….

    “Do you want to have to “look over your shoulder” for the rest of your life because you stole a pack of Fruit Stripe twenty years ago? Of course not. No, at some point you’re going to want to be able to just get on with your life. At some point, society is going to recognize that you need to move on without worrying about whether you could face criminal penalties — which typically involve the loss of liberty and property.”

    God forbid that someone rape another person and then have to deal with it for the rest of their life like a rape victim has to. A rape victim has to look over their shoulder for the rest of their life in fear that it will happen again. The idea that a rapist should be able to move on with their life worry free is absolutely disgusting. There are so many rape victims that are never able to move on with their lives and are definitely never worry free. What kind of messed up idea is that. That we allow rapists to move on with their lives unscathed, while victims continue to suffer for the rest of their lives.

    The law needs to change.

  6. Nathan, November 26, 2014:

    Commenters 3, 4 & 5, did you even bother to read this? The minimal crime of stealing a pack of gum was being contrasted with the “pretty damn bad” crime of rape. Not equated with it.

  7. leah, April 23, 2015:

    For you to trivialize an act as disgusting and savage as rape by “contrasting” it to stealing a pack of gum shows how clueless and ignorant you are. You don’t believe forcibly raping someone shows a “remarkable lack of judgment and perception”? Its just a “mistake” humans make? It amazes me that you practice law but have no real comprehension of justice. You are making a fool out of yourself by writing this uneducated and careless article. You don’t understand the destruction and self loathing that rape causes so you have no right to tell others what punishment it deserves. A rapist, no matter how long after he or she has committed a crime, deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Thank you for publishing this article so I can include it in my school project about ignorance regarding sexual assault. I think you might help me get an A!

  8. Nathan, April 25, 2015:

    Or maybe given some remedial instruction in reading comprehension?

    Seriously, did you even read the piece?

  9. Fucking Feminists, July 3, 2015:

    What the fuck, he says rape is pretty bad. He doesn’t equate stealing a pack of gum to rape, he kind of trails off and uses that analogy. It’s not ANYWHERE FUCKING NEAR murder. True, though, more severe laws than fucking treason should be exempted from the statue, rape, and sexual assault included, along with other life-endangering or damaging crimes.

  10. A man, July 22, 2015:

    The thing you have to understand is that most rapes are the types where the people know each other and alcohol is involved. Kind of like with college students.

    These types of rapes are often hard to prove. How would you like to have someone holding this against you for the rest of your life?

  11. Nate, July 24, 2015:

    Rape may not be as bad as murder, but that’s irrelevant. It’s still a crime that if you aren’t rightfully caught, should haunt you for the rest of your life.

  12. gettingTHEREoneDAYatAtime, December 9, 2015:

    Shop lifting and chewing gum have absolutely no place in this article. While the author, may not have intended his example, as a contrast. It does, murder, treason are contrasted, so using such a petty crime as an example does serve as an insult to victims.
    Saying that treason and murder are worse, is not true an insulting too.ruder is a terrible crime, but unlike with rape the suffering ends. And that’s exactly how victim support here in the UK sees it.
    Victim’s of sexual assaults are most likely, victims of repeated assaults. Even if they’re one of the minority it only happens to once, they’ll look over their shoulder for life.
    Imagine having a lovely happy family life, with a close-knit family life. Then your raped, from that moment your changed. Those beloved family members of the opposite sex, who have only ever loved and protected you, terrify you. That changes, but it takes time, your constantly aware of potential safety risks. While you want the safety in numbers, you no longer trust the way you used to either. You are plagued by nightmares and flash backs, they may stop for prolonged periods, but then something triggers them again. Though in the early days you play over and over again the moments before. All those questions demanding answers, that may not even have answers. Why did they do it? Why me? Was it something I said? Something I did? Wrong place? Could I have stopped it? What did I do wrong?
    Then law enforcement aren’t exactly comforting. The whole he said she said, your sexual history or lack of being used against you, telling you how hard it will be if you do press charges. I was five days shy of 16, they didn’t believe I was a virgin. Because if your a virgin it’s regret, if your not it’s something else, like someone said it’s alcohol making you regret it. If you have a partner they suggest you cheated and are now crying rape…..there’s always something, some excuse. When in reality no means no and stop means stop.
    It’s been 20 years, I’ve had people pity me when they have found out, called a liar, I even had a boyfriend break up with me! Because I was “nothing but dirty, disgusting & defiled”. There were no witnesses, so I never saw any justice, and he went on to do it again. He’s got on with his life, married and had children. While I have too, I still live in fear, the dirty little secret of what was done to me, has me screaming in my sleep even recently.
    I stopped eating when it first happened, until I was forced to eat. I’be tried to commit suicide, I saved pills for weeks, dreaming of ending my life. Yes, dreaming of it, because I couldn’t get clean, & I hated myself for “letting” it happen. Over the years seeing him, being assaulted again by him and years later someone else. That only made me want to end it more. I’ve been on anti-depressants, had therapy, moved hundreds of miles away. It never goes, your just forced to live with it.
    So it should never be too late to prosecute, they should never feel safe from being caught, until they face justice. They don’t get to have peace of mind after stealing their victims. And the moment they committed the crime, they should consider themselves on notice for criminal charges. Because the day their victim feels strong enough to relive it over and over and over again, that’s reporting it in a timely manner. When the victim has the strength to face, what feels like, a firing squad. To have their private life used against them in the name if justice, just so the defence can try and raise reasonable doubt. Getting justice puts rape victims through he’ll. They are truly brave, and bravery shouldn’t be met with “it’s too late”.
    Oh and one final thing, the women that really do scream rape, to punish an ex, because they got caught cheating or whatever reason they lie. Lies that apparently help 100 real rapists avoid justice. They should face the same sentence they tried to get by making those false allegations. Not just because it makes it harder for authorities to trust genuine victims, or that it will if not stop reduce the number if false reports, but because false allegations ruin lives too.
    Justice is supposed to be about people doing the right thing, and those who don’t being punished. And punishment us supposed to be a deterrent to the guilty and anyone contemplating committing the crime…

  13. gd, June 3, 2016:

    Here is my opinion on statutes – we need them. The article above states why guilty people would not want them, but it fails to discuss the innocent people who are also affected by false accusations. We have all read the stories, seen our citizens released from prison decades after being falsely charged, and found falsely guilty. To extend the statutes into time limits where memories are very cloudy at best, would be unjust to EVERYONE. We run the risk of imprisoning men and women who committed no crime, other than vaguely looking like a criminal or, worse, pissing off someone with an axe to grind. It’s a slippery slope, and this one I think should be avoided.

  14. Joshua, June 8, 2016:

    “But to equate [rape] to murder or treason shows a remarkable lack of judgment and perception. Nothing is as remotely “life-damaging” as forcibly taking the life of another.”

    Are you kidding me with this shit? Why don’t we have some unwanted stranger’s penis forcibly penetrate your body (possibly on repeat occasions) and see just how little “life-damaging” effect it has on your own emotional and psychological state.

  15. Anon, June 10, 2016:

    Joshua, are you kidding US? Having a penis inside you is worse than being slaughtered? Seriously? Very bad isn’t the same as worst bad.

    See this: http://blog.simplejustice.us/2016/06/10/judge-aaron-persky-and-the-hypocrites-revenge/

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