Utah dropped the statute of limitations for serious sex crimes; has it helped?

Local News

UTAH (ABC4 News) – In 2013, the Utah Legislature removed the statute of limitations for most serious sex crimes, allowing time for victims to come forward when they are ready, not when the state says they should be.

Victims of sex crimes often hesitate to come forward for many reasons including the fear of victim blaming, feelings of guilt or shame or being worried about negative consequences for themselves or their families. It can take years, even decades, for victims to find the courage to come forward.

But without the limits of when they can report the crime to police, victims can now feel less pressure to report something they are not ready to talk about.

While cases of individuals being charged for sex crimes that happened years ago are happening more frequently, prosecuting these cases are not simple, in fact, they are very complicated, said sex crime attorney Darwin Overson of Overson Law, PLLC. 

Depending on several mitigating factors, the cases are often confusing and complex, said Overson.

The age of the offender at the time of the offense is one of those factors. For instance, if the offender is an adult now, but was a juvenile at the time of the crime, it’s possible the offender would have been adjudicated in the juvenile system and face juvenile penalties.

Another issue is sometimes the charges are brought forth and prosecuted based on current law, not the law that was in place at the time of the crime.

Overson said often defense attorneys and prosecutors have to spend a lot of time sorting out the complex details in order to find the right balance of justice for the victim and the proper punishment for the offender. 

According to Utahcriminallaw.net, 19 first and second-degree felony crimes in Utah currently have no statute of limitations. Those crimes include rape, rape of a child, object rape, object rape of a child, forcible sodomy, sodomy on a child, sexual abuse of a child, aggravated sexual abuse of a child and aggravated sexual assault.

Three crimes, unlawful sexual activity with a minor, sexual abuse of a minor and unlawful sexual conduct with a 16 or 17-year-old could be prosecuted as third-degree felonies, so they have to be prosecuted within the four-year statute of limitations. 

In many very serious cases such as criminal homicide (including murder), aggravated assault, rape, kidnapping and burglary, where the offender’s identity is not known, Overson said prosecution can happen at any time. This allows for DNA evidence to be collected that could identify the person later. 

Overson said he has seen a rise in criminal cases against older sex crimes, but it is hard to determine if that is because of the drop in the statute of limitations or the pressure the state has felt to open and solve cases filed years ago. 

In 2017, Utah Legislature unanimously passed HB 277 which eliminated the deadline for civil child sexual abuse claims which previously had a four-year statute of limitations. 

In 2015, Utah received a grant to fund its “Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.” This grant allowed the state to start depleting the backlog of sex assault kits that had gone untested for years. 

By January 2018, nearly 2,200 rape kits later, hundreds of DNA samples were uploaded into a federal database and more than 150 suspects were identified who were already in the system.

According to endthebacklog.org, in 2017, Utah passed a law requiring law enforcement agencies to now turn in all new rape kits within 30 days of receipt.

Overson says initially limitations were put in place to protect the accused from having to face trial for a crime that happened years ago and because prosecutors had a harder time proving their cases due to lost evidence and witness memory. But over the years, changes to laws and the dropping statute of limitations on felony sex crimes have become common across the United States.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Rape & Sexual Assault Crisis Line 1-888-421-1100

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