The statute of limitations is how long prosecutors can take to file charges against someone who has committed a crime. In most cases, this deadline is based on the date the crime occurred, but it sometimes can be based on when the victim discovered that a crime occurred —in the event of a forgery, for example. In California, the statute of limitations on rape and other forms of sexual assault can be complex because the law was changed dramatically in 2017. As a result, offenses that occurred before the law was changed are not subject to the same statute of limitations as those that took place after the change. Here’s what you should know.
Is There a Statute of Limitations on Sexual Assault in California?
Not currently. However, there was a statute of limitations for rape charges in California as of December 31, 2016, and this change was not retroactive. At its most basic, this means that sexual assaults that occurred as of Midnight, January 1, 2017 are not subject to a statute of limitations. However, a rape that took place before that date is subject to the statute of limitations in place at that time, which was six years. In other words, most sexual assaults that happened before 2017 cannot be prosecuted.
There is one major exception to the pre-2017 statute of limitations. Aggravated rape offenses, as defined by California Penal Code section 269, already had no statute of limitations. As a result, prosecutors can always file charges against someone who participated in a rape that:
- utilized a weapon
- had more than one attacker
- was done by someone with a prior sex crime conviction
- caused the victim serious bodily injury
- was performed in conjunction with a burglary or robbery
Why Did California Change the Statute of Limitations on Sexual Assault?
Surprisingly, the notorious trial of Bill Cosby served as inspiration for the change. When charges were filed against him in 2016, California’s statute of limitations on sexual assault was only six years. Because his alleged rape occurred in 2004, it would have been impossible for prosecutors to file charges against him, no matter how heinous the act. As a result, the state legislature took action to change the law, so as of 2017, there is no longer any statute of limitations on any form of sexual assault charges.
What if the Rape Victim Was a Minor?
Before the 2017 changes to the law, state legislators already extended the statute of limitations for sexual assaults against minors in 2015. Under this law, sexual assaults against juveniles could be prosecuted until the victim’s 40th birthday. Again, the law was not retroactive but applied to all incidents as of January 1, 2015.
As a result, prosecutors can still file charges in sexual assault cases where the victim was a minor, as long as the act took place after the first day of 2015 and the victim is still under 40.
What is the Date of Discovery in a Rape Case?
The time typically starts ticking on the statute of limitations immediately after a sexual assault because the victim often knows the person who committed the crime. In cases where the culprit is unknown though, the clock will instead start ticking when police identify a suspect, often using DNA evidence. In some cases, DNA evidence is not immediately available after a rape. Instead, it is made available when the victim discovers she is pregnant with the child of the person who assaulted her.
Even when the date of discovery occurred after 2017 though, if the offense itself took place prior to that date, it would be subject to the statute of limitations when the crime occurred. So suppose a woman was raped in 2014, but police didn’t find a match to the DNA sample from her rape kit until 2024. In that case, prosecutors would have six years to file charges against the person responsible, as that was the statute of limitations when the offense occurred.
What is the California Statute of Limitations for Statutory Rape?
While statutory rape is considered a “rape” in the sense that the victim cannot consent due to age, the penalties are not as harsh as non-consensual sexual assault charges. Aside from having a lighter sentence, this offense also has a shorter statute of limitations. When charged as a misdemeanor, statutory rape only has a one-year statute of limitations in California, but as a felony, prosecutors have three years to file charges.
Police May Keep Investigating After the Statute of Limitations Expires
Even when the statute of limitations has expired, and no charges can be brought against an offender, police may sometimes continue to investigate accusations against a perpetrator, particularly if they may be a repeat offender. Because victims can still be presented as witnesses in future cases, it can still be helpful for police to fully investigate some rape allegations long after the statute of limitations has expired.
If you have any questions about the statute of limitations on sexual assault and how they may affect you, or if you have been charged with any type of sex crime, attorney Peter M. Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free initial consultation.