In many instances over the past year, #MeToo has helped multiple women discover they were abused by the same powerful man, but the victims were unable to file a criminal complaint because the statute of limitations had expired.
High-profile examples include Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times notes that in another high-profile case, that of disgraced former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the prosecutor just announced that no charges will be filed for domestic violence committed against several women because their cases are all past the statute of limitations. Bellafante explains that there has been pressure on the legal system for some time to expand or eliminate these time frames, but little progress has been made. She notes, “Serial predators will continue to elude punishment, given that the crimes they commit often occur over a period that can span decades. Cases built on one or two recent accusations [like those of Weinstein and Cosby]—ignoring along-term pattern of abuse—easily fall apart.” There is now abundant evidence that the trauma of sexual abuse combined with fear of retribution by powerful abusers often causes assaults to go unreported until well past the statute of limitation allowed by law.
Our laws need updating in other ways as well to hold sexual abusers criminally accountable. For example, Bellafante explains that it was not clear what crimes Schneiderman could be charged with for physically attacking and demeaning aseries of women with whom he was involved:
- Felony assault requires the demonstration of significant injury, such as a broken limb.
- Misdemeanor assault requires proof of substantial physical pain but does not include mental anguish.
- A prosecutor must be able to prove there was intent to cause physical injury, which can be invalidated by claiming that injury resulted from momentary passion or anger but was “not intended.”
In addition, our laws need clarification and expansion to include protocols and standards requiring colleges to call the police to report campus rape and assault. Instead, new rules recently released by Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education protect schools but not students. Dana Bolger explains the following about these rules:
- They narrow what counts as sexual harassment. The rules require that harassment must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access” to education. Even a rape may not count as sexual harassment under this standard because a one-time act of violence is “not pervasive.”
- They only hold schools accountable when they are“deliberately indifferent” to sexual harassment.
We also need to clarify the standards used to hold someone accountable for rape or attempted rape when there are no corroborating witnesses. The deck is stacked against women regardless of how long it takes them to come forward to seek justice for an assault.
Our laws need to change.