Constitutional Law Criminal Law

A Bad Idea Sometimes Comes From a Good Place: Illinois Erases Statute of Limitations on Child Abuse Cases

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed legislation that completely removes the statute of limitation for crimes involving sexual abuse of minors. Sex abuse victims are calling the new law a great step forward. They say pursuing justice criminally will help with the closure process.Survivors of abuse say eliminating the statutes of limitations will give them the time they need to come forward and report a crime to police.

Who could possibly be against this, right? Uhm, me . . . and hopefully every person who values the Constitution. Before you start calling me a supporter of pedophiles, hear me out. Our Constitution requires those accused of crimes to (a) be presumed innocent; (b) receive due process of law and (c) obtain a speedy trial. Why? Because we recognize that the criminal justice system is already heavily stacked in favor of the prosecution and the Founding Fathers wanted to develop a system of justice that protected the innocent, not one which merely convicted the guilty. And its worked pretty well. Conviction rates across the country are well above 90% with many states at or above 97%. So its not like the guilty are getting away with crimes. So the last thing we should be doing is reducing the few protections the system has in place for the accused. One would think the recent rash of exonerations, including of some men who were on Death Row for crimes they didn’t commit, would be enough for the populace and the politicians to cherish those protections.

The scales are there for a reason

“But the children!!What about the children!!” folks will scream. Yes, child sexual abuse is an horrific crime with lifelong implications and consequences for victims. False accusations of child abuse also have far lasting implications and consequences. Statutes of limitations were developed by the Ancient Greeks who imposed a five year statute of limitations on all crimes except murder. In New York, that five year rule still applies to almost all felonies and there is still no statute of limitations on murder. Statutes of limitations strike a balance between the right of an accused to have their day in court and seek justice and the right of the accused – who remember is presumed innocent – to be able to properly defend themselves. Memories fade, witnesses disappear, crucial evidence will likely be long gone if someone can be prosecuted 50 years after a crime supposedly occurred. And believe me, people accused of this crime already walk into the courtroom with tremendous disadvantages just by the nature of the charges.

Advocates for child sex abuse victims point to the fact that children often suppress these incidents for years. In a story about the new law posted by the local ABC News affiliate, David Rudofski said he was sexually abused by Illinois priest Father James Burnett when Rudofski was just 8 years old. But, it wasn’t until he was in his mid-30’s when Rudofski reported the abuse. He’s quoted as saying: “”It takes years – sometimes decades – to have the courage to come up and talk about or even realize what happened.” No doubt. But Illinois law already had one of the longest statutes of limitations for these crimes on the books: It called for cases to be reported and prosecuted within 20 years of the victim turning 18. That time period seems to strike a sufficient balance between the two important and competing interests here.

Children can be manipulated into making false allegations of child abuse, particularly in hotly contested custody cases. Is that common? No. Studies show that the prevalence of false allegations by children is around five to ten percent of cases. While that is a low number, the statistics also show that in Illinois there was not a large number of cases that went un-prosecuted due to the statute of limitations. I saw no such statistical evidence in legislative history for the new law. The drive for the new law seems to come in part by the case of Dennis Hastert, the former Illinois Congressman who served as Speaker of the House in between Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi. It was revealed that for years, while Hastert was a high school football coach in the 1970s, he abused and molested numerous of his students and players. Some of those cases fell beyond the statute of limitations though Hastert settled most of them in civil court and ended up doing 15 months in a Federal penitentiary for trying to buy off another victim.

We use the scales to symbolize our system of justice for a reason. Laws that fully eliminate the statute of limitations, or extend them to points where they no longer serve their function, sound good and provide a nice platform from which politicians can make their “Tough on Crime” speeches. But they also erode long-standing protections put into place to make sure we do not wrongfully convict an innocent person. We should be very careful to tip the scales.

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