Florida lawmakers may lift statute of limitations on rape cases

In the wake of several nationwide cases dealing with sexual assault and abuse, advocates are pushing Florida to ease its statutes of limitations
Nearly two dozen victims of Jeffrey Epstein voiced their outrage at a hearing in Manhattan on Aug. 27, 2019.
Nearly two dozen victims of Jeffrey Epstein voiced their outrage at a hearing in Manhattan on Aug. 27, 2019. [ EMILY MICHOT | Miami Herald ]
Published Oct. 21, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — In Florida, what happens in the first 72 hours after a sexual assault is a critical period: It can determine a lifetime of consequences for some perpetrators or shut their victims out from getting justice if they don’t come forward in time.

That’s because state law says if a victim of sexual battery who is 16 or older does not report the crime to law enforcement within those three days, a byzantine eight-year clock starts ticking on how long that assault can be brought for prosecution in a court of law.

Such a provision, known as a statute of limitations, exists for many crimes. But for sexual assault in Florida, it’s governed by a patchwork system that varies depending on how severe the crime is considered to be or the age of the victim.

In the wake of several nationwide cases dealing with sexual assault and abuse, advocates are pushing Florida to ease those statutes of limitations, acknowledging that victims face a slew of pressures — from intimidation or threats from their attacker to public stigma — in coming forward.

Two sets of bills being proposed for next year’s legislative session would start to lift that statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases, respectively: Senate Bill 170 and its House counterpart House Bill 199 would remove any statute of limitations in criminal cases of sexual battery if a victim was under 18 when the crime was committed. House Bill 277 would eliminate the statute of limitations entirely for any civil cases brought by victims of sexual assault, as well as other sexual crimes.

“There’s a lot of reasons why survivors don’t immediately come forward,” said Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which advocates against sexual violence. But Florida “has one of the more restrictive criminal statute of limitations in the country,” making it difficult for them to seek justice when they do.

The group is pushing to remove the 72-hour limit on reporting and the eight-year statute of limitations for first- and second-degree sexual battery. They also want to add similar sexual crimes — like child pornography — to the bill dealing with statutes of limitations in criminal cases.

The efforts, advocates hope, may be helped by a renewed interest in addressing sexual assault and abuse, spurred by the global #MeToo movement and by attention on cases like that of Jeffrey Epstein, the accused sexual predator who was charged with sex trafficking before he killed himself in federal prison earlier this year.

“In the same way that we don’t want to reward murderers for hiding bodies, we don’t want to reward sexual offenders for evading that statute of limitations,” Cooper said.

The Legislature previously amended the statutes of limitations in 2015 when Danielle Sullivan, a Central Florida advocate, pushed lawmakers to extend what was then a four-year statute of limitations to eight. Sullivan, who did not report her assault within 72 hours, had narrowly missed her four-year window to report her rape by 43 days — the law was titled the “43 days Initiative” when it passed and became law.

Rep. Michael Gottlieb, D-Plantation, who is sponsoring the bill dealing with civil cases, said his bill was modeled after similar legislation in New York and New Jersey, and meant to correct “substantial inequities in the Florida statute.”

“Victims of sexual abuse often take years to come forward and feel comfortable talking about the abuse that they’ve suffered,” he said. “Cases such as Epstein, [Harvey] Weinstein and others have certainly increased the public’s appetite for and understanding of sexual abuse in the civil arena.”

“It’s for allowing these victims to have a voice in a courtroom, where there’s decorum and respect and the opportunity to tell your story and have it be heard and likewise have it judged,” he added.

Gottlieb said he intends to also add a one-year “lookback” to his bill either as an amendment or through a forthcoming Senate companion bill, allowing victims a year to “revive any claims that were dead under the prior statute.”

Cooper said the bills send a signal to survivors that they should have more time to come forward. For perpetrators, she added, it says “there’s no safe harbor in Florida. There’s no ‘get out of jail free’ card for you.”

Both sets of bills would take effect in July 2020 if passed. Lawmakers are moving to hear the bills during committee weeks before the next year’s legislative session starts in January.