Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Statute of limitations

The Diamondback > Opinion

Staff editorial: Justice for all
By Diamondback editorial board

Published: Monday, March 28, 2011

Updated: Sunday, March 27, 2011 21:03

Related Articles
Univ. officials back longer statute of limitations
There are few things more devastating or damaging than sexual assault. Depending on the degree and length of abuse, a person can be scarred in varying degrees. For minors, the repercussions can be even more severe. And yet, in this state, those who are victims of groping or fondling, usually classified as fourth-degree assault, have no more than one year to report the crime. A day longer and the statute of limitations expires, and the person who committed the crime cannot be charged.

However, that may soon change.

Legislation before the General Assembly would rewrite that law to extend the statute of limitations to three years in order to provide a larger window for victims to come to terms with the crime committed against them and seek help.

And while the original piece of legislation applied to all victims, regardless of age, legislators have since amended the bill, extending that three year window for only those who were under the age of 18 when the crime occurred. To be sure, there are substantial arguments in favor of extending the statute of limitations for minors — who are often scared into silence by their abusers or cannot process the magnitude of the incident — but there are equally valid reasons to extend this protection to adults.

Adults may also take longer than the one year allotted by the state to come to terms with abuse. Additionally, the definition of adults also applies to students at this university. An 18-year-old freshman in college has just 12 months to report any instance of sexual assault that does not involve penetration. With most college sexual offenses occurring after heavy drinking, it can sometimes take time for students to realize the gravity of what occurred. An environment of alcohol consumption and promiscuity can also mask the true nature of what happened.

Moreover, adults who are mentally disabled are often easy targets for sexual abuse. The degree to which they are disabled can cause them to experience the same kind of confusion and fear a child might feel, and yet they too have just one year to report the crime.

University officials have put their support behind the bill, despite the fact that, as written, it excludes most college students. Although students assaulted when they are 17 or younger would still benefit from an amended bill, the university should use its voice to insist legislators expand the statute of limitations to all victims, not just minors.

Some may argue that extending the statute of limitations to all victims would become a nightmare for an investigation launched more than one year after a crime. Certainly, groping and fondling are allegations that can be difficult to prove. Unlike more severe sexual assaults, there is rarely certifiable evidence left behind, such as DNA. It becomes the job of police to substantiate claims through witnesses and questioning. And while this may prove difficult, to close the door on justice for anyone over the age of 18 who has fallen victim to a crime or takes longer than the state deems appropriate to report the incident seems absurd.

With this bill before the legislature, lawmakers in Annapolis have an opportunity to truly change the lives of countless sexual assault victims. To take that opportunity away from adults would ignore the trauma such crimes can cause and demonstrate a disturbing lack of understanding. Trauma does not necessarily lessen with age, nor does an individual's right to justice.

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