California trashed statute of limitations on rape cases thanks to Bill Cosby

At the end of August, California passed a three-year minimum sentencing law for cases of sexual assault following outrage at the notoriously short sentencing of Stanford sexual offender Brock Turner. Now, yet another famous, controversial rape case has inspired change to the state’s laws: Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual assaults inspired a law ending the statute of limitations for rape in California, signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday. The law “amends the penal code so that some sex crimes, including rape, forcible sodomy and molestation of a child, can be be prosecuted, regardless of how long ago the crime occurred.”

The new law is being regarded as a nod to sexual assault allegations against Cosby, some of which reach back decades. Cosby’s trial date was set earlier this month for June 5, 2017, two years after a handful of women emerged and accused the comedian. The new law could make a difference for Cosby’s alleged victims affected by incidents taking place in California, including one victim who claims she was 17 when he drugged and molested her at a party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

Prior to the passage of the law, which will go into effect at the beginning of next year on Jan. 1, 2017, the state upheld a statute of limitations of 10 years, and held that sex crimes against minors had to be prosecuted before the alleged victims turn 40.

Statutes of limitations for cases of rape subtly enforce the immense pressure our culture places on victims of rape to conform to the “perfect victim” narrative or face shame, blame, and ultimately disbelief. Depending on how victims were dressed, how much they drank, their behaviors, and sexual histories, any and every imperfection of a victim is used to call their credibility into question, and if they fail to immediately report their experiences, this too casts a shadow on their claims.

These attitudes undermine the simple fact that trauma, PTSD, and fear of harassment and abuse from law enforcement, as well as stigma, victim-blaming, and, obviously, disbelief, can hold victims back from reporting their experiences for years. The reality is that only 2 to 8 percent of individuals who report rape wind up being dishonest, and yet victims are still expected to conform to an impeccable narrative — they must have DNA evidence, must have been dressed like a nun and been stone-sober, and have virtually no sexual history — just to be heard.

Tackling the statute of limitations and offering respect and consideration to all victims regardless of how much time it took them to come forward serves as an important step in the right direction toward dismantling the emphasis society and law enforcement place on perfect victim behavior.

The law was introduced to the California state senate by Democratic State Senator Connie Leyva, who responded to Governor Brown signing the bill with the following statement:

“Governor Jerry Brown’s signature of SB 813 tells every rape and sexual assault victim in California that they matter and that, regardless of when they are ready to come forward, they will always have an opportunity to seek justice in a court of law. Rapists should never be able to evade legal consequences simply because an arbitrary time limit has expired.”

Seventeen other states have similarly ended statutes of limitation on rape charges in recent years, the California Women’s Law Center reports. Colorado and Nevada recently doubled their statutes of limitation to 20 years, but as Levya points out, eliminating the statute altogether sends the important message to victims of rape that the passage of time doesn’t make them matter any less, and they have the autonomy to report their experiences on their own terms.