If American culture is finally grappling with the realities of sexual abuse, the law may not be far behind.

A bill introduced in the Minnesota Legislature last month would remove the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes, meaning victims can report when they are ready and not when the law says they need to be, supporters say.

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"Reporting one's own experience to the police is a choice that every survivor deserves, and they deserve to have that choice their entire lives," Sarah Super said at a Capitol news conference March 8.

Super, founder of advocacy group Break the Silence, said the bill reflects a better understanding of how trauma is processed and remembered. It also creates one less barrier for victims, law enforcement and prosecutors seeking justice.

"Though sexual violence will always be a painful experience, the response survivors receive from the justice system doesn't have to be," Super said.

Minnesota law today has a variety of hourglasses when it comes to seeking charges for rape and sexual assault. The time limit depends on what year the crime occurred, when or if it was first reported, how old the victim was and whether there is DNA evidence.

It's not an easy thing to navigate, on top of the trauma of the crime itself.

"It's complicated, and we get a lot of calls in our office asking, 'Has this run out because of the statute of limitations?' " Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the News Tribune. "I try to never give a definitive answer, because you never know. We are always telling people to report."

The Legislature has reworked the statute of limitations for sex crimes in the past, which has complicated the law but offered more recourse for certain victims. St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin says lawmakers have shown an "enlightenment" on the issue.

"When I started 40 years ago the statute of limitations was three years," Rubin said. "Things have changed a great deal over that time."

But what's been missing, some say, is a total overhaul of the limitations.

"It's been tinkered with but it hasn't been purified or cleansed," said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who has represented victims of clergy sex abuse. "So this (bill) really purifies it moving forward."

It took decades for Katye Stolp and her sister, Kendra Alfords, to come forward with their allegations of abuse, which were recounted in Sunday's News Tribune. Because of past changes to the statute of limitations, Itasca County is able to press charges against their uncle, Don Jamsa. No matter the outcome, the two said they now have better closure on a trauma that they say has followed them their whole lives.

Still, for many survivors of decades-old sexual assault, there may be no day in court. Barbara Maasch, the aunt of Stolp and Alfords, also approached Itasca County about abuse she says she endured more than 50 years ago. According to the statutes of limitations, the window for the 62-year-old to press charges closed when she was a teenager.

That wouldn't change under the proposed legislation.

If it passes, the bill would give victims an unlimited amount of time to report felony sex crimes that occur starting in August. This doesn't retroactively change the statute of limitations for older crimes - and according to the Supreme Court, it can't.

"Unfortunately the United States Supreme Court on a 5-4 decision on a California bill just like this ruled there is a legal principle called ex post facto on criminal cases," Anderson said. "You can't do a lookback. You can only look forward."

While Minnesota could launch a challenge to that decision by passing a law that works retroactively, for now the bill will protect only future victims.

"Most of the adults and children protected by this bill will be our children," Anderson said.

Though old cases that fall outside the existing statute of limitations are rare, authorities say, data shows that sex crimes are vastly underreported. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that just 23 percent of all rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2016 - the lowest reporting rate of any violent or property crime that year.

Research also shows that false reports are equally infrequent across all types of crime, which is why those pushing for the removal of the statute of limitations say the accused will still be protected.

"We're not losing due process, we're not losing rights, but what we're gaining is more justice for survivors," said Palmer with MNCASA.

Even for those who won't directly benefit, like Maasch, the bill could do more than get convictions.

"My hope is that this will change the system so victims do feel comfortable coming forward and get the healing we need," Maasch said.


The statutes of limitations now

Victims of criminal sexual conduct in Minnesota already have an unlimited amount of time to report and seek charges if all these conditions apply:

  • DNA evidence is collected and preserved
  • The crime is first-, second- or third-degree criminal sexual conduct
  • The crime happened or was chargeable on or after Aug. 1, 2000.

The proposed law would remove the DNA requirement for first- through fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct as well as solicitation, inducement and promotion of prostitution and sex trafficking. Should the bill pass, for those crimes that occur after Aug. 1 this year, victims may report and prosecutors may pursue charges "at any time after the commission of the offense."

Under current law, for children victimized after Aug. 1, 1984, there generally is no time limit to report the crime, but police and prosecutors have three years to bring charges in the case, according to an analysis by the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

For all other victims, the statute of limitations ranges from three to nine years. Generally, the older and less severe the crime, the less time there is. For crimes that occurred before Aug. 1, 1984, the clock may have run out - though every case is different.

"The decision about whether the statute of limitations has passed is complex, and depends on many factors," MNCASA writes. "Advocates should never give advice or an opinion on whether the limitations time has passed - always consult your local county attorney or law enforcement for that information."


The bills

HF 3434 was introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives on March 8 and referred to the Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. The bill, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes, was introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, and has 22 co-sponsors.

In the Senate, DFL Sen. Sandra Pappas of St. Paul introduced SF3206 on March 12. The measure was referred to the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Neither bill has yet had a hearing.

In Minnesota, murder is the only crime that currently has no statute of limitations.