Anxious about the prospect of rushing abuse victims into the justice system, a D.C. councilwoman is poised to introduce sweeping legislation Tuesday that would eliminate the District's statute of limitations for dozens of sex crimes.
The proposal from Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh would significantly broaden the ability and authority of prosecutors to target suspects.
"People may need more time to come to terms with what happened to them," said Cheh, a criminal law professor. "By the time people recover, they may find that they cannot seek justice. There should at least be the prospect that somebody could still be held to account if the case can be made."
|Sex crimes climbing in D.C.|
|> After a 51 percent increase in sexual abuse cases last year, the Metropolitan Police Department said Monday that sex crimes are on the rise again in 2013. The agency said it has investigated 58 cases of sexual abuse so far this year, up from 53 at the same time in 2012.|
Cheh's proposed overhaul would eliminate the requirements governing the timing of prosecutions for 24 offenses, including sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
The changes would apply to crimes committed in the future, as well as those that have already occurred but have not yet reached the existing time restrictions.
District authorities currently have 10 years to prosecute most sex crimes, although the time frame runs up to 15 years for certain offenses.
Maryland and Virginia do not have statutes of limitations for felony sex crimes, though dozens of states have imposed restrictions on prosecutors. In three Southern states, authorities have three years or less to file sexual abuse charges.
Victims' advocates on Monday welcomed Cheh's legislation.
"Reporting a crime of sexual violence takes bravery and may not be a viable option for some survivors right after the crime is committed," Holly Kearl, who founded Stop Street Harassment, said in a statement. "By removing the statute of limitations for sexual violence crimes, more survivors will be able to come forward when they feel safe enough to do so."
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr., whose office prosecutes sex crimes in the District, declined to comment, but federal prosecutors have decried the limitations "artificial barriers" to justice.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, however, was skeptical of Cheh's proposal.
"There's a real burden and cost to defendants, and it's not uncommon in criminal cases that accusations are not necessarily accurate," Mendelson said. "The burden on the defendant is something to be taken seriously."
But Mendelson said he would be willing to contemplate changing the law so prosecutors can bring cases if they have scientific evidence.
"If you have something that is as conclusive as DNA evidence, that's different from dealing with eyewitness accounts," Mendelson said.
Machen acknowledged last July that authorities had imprisoned a D.C. man for decades for a rape he did not commit.
By the time authorities confirmed their mistake -- and implicated a known sex offender -- using DNA evidence, prosecutors could not file charges because the statute of limitations had run out.