The recent criminal charges against Bill Cosby are sparking a debate over the statute of limitations for rape and sexual assault. Some argue that imposing a deadline on when charges can be filed hurts victims and impedes justice, while others say statutes of limitations are a necessary protection for the rights of the accused.
Either way, one thing is clear: Where you live makes a huge difference in when, and whether, you can seek justice for an old case of sexual assault. Statutes of limitations range from three to 30 years, or no limit at all, depending on which state you live in:
The map above doesn't even present the full picture of how complicated and variable state laws on this can be.
Some states have different statutes of limitations for different categories of sex crimes. For instance, Arkansas has a six-year statute of limitations for rape but only three years for sexual assault, and Washington, DC, has a 15-year limit for first- and second-degree crimes but 10 years for third- and fourth-degree crimes. (This map shows states' longest limits, so I've put DC in the "11-15 years" category.) Fourteen states have no statutes of limitations for some high-level crimes (like rape or sexual assault using violence or drugs) but do have statutes of limitations for other categories of sexual assault; those states have their own categories on the map. Other states (Oklahoma, Illinois, and Washington) extend or eliminate the statutes of limitations indicated here, if the crime is reported to the police within a certain time frame.
And some, but definitely not all, states will suspend their statutes of limitations for sex crimes if new DNA evidence is discovered or processed.
Statutes of limitations make it harder to prosecute Cosby for sexual assault
The only criminal case so far against Bill Cosby just barely squeaked in under the deadline for Pennsylvania's 12-year statute of limitations. Some of Cosby's alleged victims say they were assaulted decades ago but only came forward in the past year once they heard of other victims. Many were afraid no one would believe them or that Cosby was too powerful to cross. It's common for victims of serial offenders to wait to come forward until they have safety in numbers.
In about half of all US states, rape or sexual assault victims have 10 years or less to report and press charges for the crimes against them. And in only 16 states could victims even theoretically charge Cosby with the crimes he's been accused of committing in the 1960s and '70s.
It's already exceptionally difficult to prosecute rape cases that are years or decades old, because memories fade and evidence either deteriorates or can't be collected. That's bad news for victims seeking justice, and for those who hope Cosby sees jail time. But it also means that repealing statute of limitations laws is unlikely to lead to a flood of old cases that suddenly threaten the rights of the accused with dubious charges. If an old rape case makes it to trial, chances are that it has really strong evidence. And if an old case has really strong evidence, it's hard to argue that it shouldn't be heard.