Many states have joined a national shift toward lengthening or even doing away with statutes of limitations for some sex crimes. Michigan’s new rules make it part of this trend.
What is a “statute of limitations”?
Crimes and other wrongdoing often get harder to prove as time goes on. Evidence may get brittle, contaminated or lost. Memory may fade or mix with imagination, and witnesses die or get harder to locate.
So, law (“statutes”) commonly put time limits on most crimes, as if a timer starts ticking the moment someone does something illegal. When the time is up, the government generally cannot put anyone on trial for that crime, and people cannot sue the allegedly guilty person in court.
How long the time limit is or should be can depend on complex factors. Now and then, courts hear heated battles over whether time has or has not run out.
Sex crimes and Michigan statutes of limitations
If the crime happened when the victim was younger than 18, the state now must charge the suspect within 15 years of the incident, or before the victim turns 28, whichever is later. For example, a person victimized at 10 would be 25 after 15 years, but there would still be three more years to file charges.
That is for criminal charges. For civil lawsuits, where one citizen sues another for damages, the rule is a little different. A person can now file a suit for damages from sexual assault within 10 years after an incident. However, if the victim was under 18 at the time of the incident, they can file suit anytime before they turn 28.
No matter what their age, if the victim also has three years after they discover that the assault happened to file suit. Even a 40-year-old might discover they were assaulted when they were 10, in which case they could file suit at 43.
Tolling stops the clock for a while
Finally, states often have tolling rules that define ways they can “pause the timer” on the statute of limitations, increasing the total time before the statute prevents legal action.
For example, in Michigan statutes of limitations generally “pause” or toll if the suspect moved out of the state or stayed in the state but lived in hiding, perhaps under an assumed name.
The statute of limitations stops keeping time and only starts counting again when the person moves back or once again goes public.