Lawmakers consider bill to remove criminal statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse

May 24—Maine lawmakers are considering legislation that would eliminate time limits on criminal charges for certain kinds of childhood sexual abuse.

The current statute of limitations bars prosecutors from filing charges more than six years after a serious felony-level crime has occurred, and more than three years for lower, misdemeanor-level crimes. For crimes involving unlawful sexual contact and gross sexual assault, prosecutors are allowed a 20-year window.

Under L.D. 1790, which was unanimously recommended by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, a majority of abuse crimes against victims under 18 that involve physical contact would no longer fall under any statute of limitation — but the bill would not be retroactive and therefore would not apply to the dozens of high-profile allegations of abuse currently levied against Catholic priests in Maine.

"It's a simple proposition, victims deserve justice in both criminal and civil venues," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said in written testimony. "No one should be able to perpetrate this evil and simply walk away, content that time is on their side — and as we sit here, time is indeed, on their side."

The bill's supporters say it can take years, sometimes decades, for people who have experienced abuse as children to come forward. The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault told lawmakers that adults reporting abuse from decades ago make up at least half of the 6,000 to 7,000 calls it receives each year on its 24/7 hotline.

"Delayed reporting in sexual violence cases is extremely common for a variety of reasons, including fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, self-blame about what happened, not having a support person, or not understanding what happened," Public Policy and Legal Director Melissa Martin told lawmakers this month.

The bill's opponents say that while the legislation's intentions are noble, it interferes with important safeguards for criminal defendants.

"Statutes of limitations play an essential role in the criminal justice system and are carefully designed to preserve the right to prosecute while also protecting defendants' rights," Megan Sway, policy director for the ACLU of Maine, wrote in testimony to lawmakers. An innocent person facing criminal charges might struggle to remember where they were on a particular day, Sway said. And the memory of an alibi witness might fade, or the witness might move away and become inaccessible.

"By eliminating statutes of limitation entirely, a person could find themselves practically without the ability to defend themselves because all exculpatory evidence is gone," Sway wrote.

CONSTITUTIONALITY

The legislation also expands the kinds of abuse people can file civil claims for, a section of the law that was revised in recent years.

L.D. 1790 would apply only to new cases. Shira Burns, an assistant district attorney in York County and a member of the Maine Prosecutors Association, said retroactively changing the statute of limitations on criminal cases would violate the Maine Constitution.

Maine's highest court is already considering the constitutionality of a 2021 law that allows people to bring forward previously expired civil claims of sexual abuse.

Lawmakers originally removed the statute of limitations for civil abuse claims in 2001, but it only applied to cases after 1987. The 2021 law removed that time element.

The case before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court now stems from more than a dozen decades-old civil complaints filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in the past two years.

The diocese has argued that the law puts it in an unfair position to defend itself because of the amount of time that's passed.

But the stakes would be even higher for those criminally accused, defense attorney Walt McKee said in written testimony on behalf of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He told lawmakers that the statute of limitations exists for criminal defendants because it ensures they have the evidence they need.

"With the passage of time like this, witnesses may be, and often are, long since gone or have completely forgotten what did or did not happen, and the defendant is left with only his or her adamant denials that nothing ever happened in defense of a case, a truly unfair position; when if the case had been brought within the existing statute of limitations a defendant would have the benefit of far more evidence," McKee wrote.

STRONG EMOTIONS

The ACLU of Maine suggested addressing other barriers that people reporting abuse face, including fear of reporting to law enforcement and systemic processing errors in the criminal legal system.

"Sex crimes, and allegations of sex crimes, provoke strong emotions," Sway said. "For this very reason, it is incumbent upon lawmakers to recognize that the criminal legal system is susceptible to error, and that as a consequence, people who are innocent may become the targets of criminal prosecutions."

Michael Bigos, an attorney representing many of the people suing the diocese, told lawmakers that the statute of limitations was enacted at a time when child sexual abuse wasn't widely reported, and policymakers weren't aware of its prevalence.

"The Legislature didn't have the information that we have now to be able to write a trauma-informed law," Bigos wrote. "Victims should not be prohibited from seeking justice when child sex abuse was going unchecked for years because society favored silencing victims and didn't understand the psychology behind the trauma of children repressing sexual abuse or fear of coming forward. There is a major power imbalance when a child is abused, and they are pressured to keep quiet by their abusers."

Burns, the assistant district attorney in York County, said Maine prosecutors support the bill. Burns told lawmakers that she doesn't believe it will result in that many more criminal charges because not everyone who comes forward chooses to engage in the criminal legal process and some claims will still be too difficult to prosecute.

"But for the survivors that do want to go through the criminal justice process, we at least have an opening to investigate their case," Burns said Wednesday. "We can do it, and we will try to do that. If this helps one victim, it is worth the effort that was put into this."