Being accused of a crime in San Diego and anywhere in the state of California is frightening enough all by itself. Facing accusations of rape, sexual abuse, or any crime of a sexual nature, is usually even more terrifying. However, finding out that you are being accused of a rape offense that is alleged to have occurred years ago is often the least bearable, yet it can – and often does – happen to people. Many defendants facing these types of allegations ask the obvious question, “Can I be prosecuted for rape in California if it happened years ago?” Though this may appear to be a simple question, it is not.
Rape and other sex crimes are serious offenses in the state of California that can result in serious penalties for the defendant if convicted. Sex crimes, in particular, frequently do not result in an accusation until long after the alleged offense actually occurred. In many, but not all, sex crimes a suspect is arrested immediately. Some sex crimes, however, take months, even years, for the police to investigate before an arrest is made. Still other sex crimes don’t result in an immediate arrest because the alleged victim doesn’t come forward until a significant amount of time has elapsed after the alleged crime was committed. This is most likely to occur in the case of sex crimes such as rape or child molestation. An alleged victim may not report being sexually assaulted, molested, or raped until years after the fact. In some cases, the victim does not come forward initially out of fear of the alleged perpetrator. A child victim may not come forward until he or she is an adult. In some situations, an alleged victim may claim that he or she repressed the memory of the attack, causing a delay in reporting the crime.
Regardless of the reason, it is far from unusual for a sex crime such as rape to be reported years after the alleged commission of the crime. So where does that leave the alleged perpetrator? Not surprisingly, many people ask whether they can be prosecuted for rape if it happened (possibly many) years ago. In California, many crimes are subject to a statute of limitations, or SOL. A statute of limitations is the time frame within which the State of California has to prosecute a defendant in a criminal case. One purpose of a SOL is to ensure that an accused isn’t forced to try and defend a crime that occurred so long ago that any evidence and/or witnesses that might exonerate the accused have disappeared. When deciding on an appropriate statute of limitations, the state legislature must weigh competing interests. On one hand, crimes are not always conveniently solved in a short period of time; yet, a criminal should not be allowed to escape prosecution simply because the police are unable to solve the crime quickly. On the other hand, it is not fair to allow prosecutions for minor offenses years after the fact when exculpatory witnesses and evidence may long since have disappeared. Therefore, as a general rule, less serious crimes have a short SOL (1-5 years) while more serious crimes have longer SOLs, or do not have a SOL at all as is the case with murder.
For most offenses, the applicable SOL is easy enough to figure out. Keep in mind, however, that the applicable SOL is the one that was in effect at the time the alleged crime was committed. Not so with sex offenses, including rape. California does have SOLs for some sexual crimes, however, others can be prosecuted at any time. Some rules are clear while others are not.
For example, it is clear that aggravated rape has no statute of limitations in California, meaning you can be prosecuted for aggravated rape years, even decades, after the crime was allegedly committed. Aggravated rape is one in which a weapon was used, the victim was seriously injured, or multiple defendants are involved. Aggravated sexual assault has no SOL in California. Non-aggravated rape does have a SOL of six years, however, there are exceptions. Just to complicate matters further, sexual assault (non-aggravated) does have a SOL but that SOL can be waived if a DNA test can conclusively prove the defendant did it. For instance, if you can conclusively prove that the defendant committed the crime by DNA analysis, the SOL is changed to within one year after discovery of the DNA.
Likewise, child molestation has a SOL in theory, however, if a child doesn’t mention the molestation until after the SOL then the State of California may still be able to prosecute when the child (or adult now) does make the accusation. If the alleged victim is a minor, the rules become even more complicated. In theory, there is a ten year SOL on child molestation. Except, there is an exception to that rule that allows a defendant to be prosecuted within one year after the victim tells the police about the crime, regardless of how long ago it actually took place. In essence, the exception makes the ten year period inapplicable.
Due to the complexity of the rape laws and the various statute of limitations rules and exceptions to those rules it is always best to consult with an experienced California criminal defense attorney as soon as you are made aware that you may be a suspect in a rape case or if you have been accused of any other sex offense. Do not assume that the case cannot be prosecuted if the alleged crime occurred many years ago.
The bottom line is that if you have been accused of rape, or any other sex offense, you need to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney right away. For immediate legal help, contact San Diego criminal defense attorney Domenic J. Lombardo at (619) 232-5122 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.