Abolish the statute of limitations on rape? Florida lawmakers may debate the question

A bill filed this month by Hillsborough Democrat Adam Hattersley is dubbed the “Me Too No More Act,” a nod to the national movement against sexual violence.
Hillsborough lawmaker Adam Hattersley filed a bill this month that would allow prosecution of rape at any time. He announced his idea for the "Me Too No More" bill during his campaign, pictured in this screenshot. [Courtesy of Adam Hattersley]
Hillsborough lawmaker Adam Hattersley filed a bill this month that would allow prosecution of rape at any time. He announced his idea for the "Me Too No More" bill during his campaign, pictured in this screenshot. [Courtesy of Adam Hattersley]
Published Jan. 25, 2019

TAMPA — A Tampa Bay lawmaker is seizing on the national reckoning that arose from the Me Too movement with a bill that would allow prosecution for rape no matter how long ago it may have occurred.

The bill, filed this month by Hillsborough Democrat Adam Hattersley, is dubbed the “Me Too No More Act” in a nod to the national movement against sexual violence. The proposal calls for abolishing statutes of limitations in nearly all sexual battery cases, meaning prosecutors could pursue a case regardless of how many years have passed.

“A family has to have a path to justice, even if it’s difficult 20 years later,” Hattersley said. “The path has to be open.”

Hattersley, who was elected in November to a Brandon-based state House seat formerly held by Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, said he was struck by how many people experience sexual violence in their lives — one in three women and one in six men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The proposal has support from victims’ advocates who want to remove barriers faced by survivors of sexual violence in reporting a crime that can take someone years to process and often is met with skepticism from law enforcement and society.

“Sexual battery is a horrendous crime,” said Clara Reynolds, president and chief executive of the Crisis Center Of Tampa Bay, “and we really believe that this crime should not be silenced by expiration dates."

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The idea has detractors, too, including defense lawyers and civil liberties groups who worry it would impede a defendant’s due process. It’s difficult to find witnesses and establish an alibi when too much time has passed, said Carrie Haughwout, the public defender in Palm Beach County and president of the Florida Public Defender Association.

“That’s where our concerns lie, is the difficulty for people charged being able to defend against things that occurred decades earlier,” said Haughwout.

She said she hadn’t read Hattersley’s bill but generally opposes the idea.

Seven states already have abolished statutes of limitations for all felony sex crimes, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. These include Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina. Many more have created exceptions to the statute of limitations if a case includes DNA evidence.

In Florida, statutes of limitations vary depending on how a crime is classified and how old a victim was at the time of the offense. For example, any sexual battery offense on a child under 16 has no statute of limitations. For those 16 and older, prosecution must commence within eight years, with some exceptions for certain ages and how soon the crime was reported.

In 2015, lawmakers doubled this provision from four to eight years following a campaign championed by Danielle Sullivan, who reported she had been raped to police only to be told she was 43 days past the four-year deadline.

The law change was deemed the “43 Days Initiative Act.”

Determining the right number of years, or whether any time restriction should apply, is complicated, said Ráchael Powers, a University of South Florida professor who researches sexual violence.

“These numbers are somewhat arbitrary,” she said. “They’re not based in some empirical research or based on how humans process information.”

Discussion around the statute of limitations typically crops up with high-profile cases, she said. Many accusers came forward during the Me Too movement about abuse that happened years before, involving celebrities including Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Kevin Spacey.

Before the movement gained steam in 2017 with the Weinstein allegations, entertainer Bill Cosby faced accusations from about 50 women. Because of statutes of limitations, only one case led to criminal charges. Cosby was convicted in April.

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Richard Greenberg, a Tallahassee lawyer who is president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, pointed to a more recent high-profile case: accusations against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress last year that Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party when they were in high school. While she spoke during a confirmation hearing, not in a criminal trial, the case underscored Greenberg’s concerns about defending against decades-old allegations.

“There aren't many people that keep a calendar of everything they do on a daily basis,” Greenberg said, referring to Kavanaugh’s citation of a personal calendar to defend himself against the allegations.

USF's Powers said she understands that argument, but it could also hurt the prosecution's attempts to pursue a case. The reality is that without witnesses or DNA evidence, many cases won’t move forward.

“You could argue the legislation is more symbolic than practical,” she said.

A lack of evidence is the biggest obstacle in pursuing sexual battery cases, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said. While he applauds Hattersley’s idea, and any attempt to remove barriers to reporting rape, “too many sexual battery cases are lost because of insufficient evidence,” Warren said.

“These are some of the toughest cases to prosecute in the system,” he said, “and it’s not just on what happens within the prosecutor’s office. It’s about the investigation, it’s about the culture of victims, encouraging victims to come forward. It’s about all the different pieces of the system working together so that we can hold people accountable who commit sexual assault.”

Hattersley’s proposal also includes a provision that would provide law enforcement agencies training on how to interview victims of trauma with more sensitivity.

His is one of at least three bills targeting the statute of limitations.

Another, filed by Boca Raton Democrat Emily Slosberg, would increase the time restriction for victims older than 16 from eight to 15 years and require a statewide database to track rape kits. And a Senate bill, filed by Orlando Democrat Linda Stewart, would abolish the statute of limitations for all sexual battery offenses involving victims under 18.

Hattersley will likely face an uphill battle as a freshman lawmaker in a Republican-controlled legislature, but he said he’d be willing to work with his colleagues to reach a compromise.

“As long as we’re able to make some progress on this,” he said, “I’m going to call it a win.”