On January 1st, 2023, the Sexual Abuse and Cover Up Accountability Act officially took effect in California. This law extends the statute of limitations for certain legal claims focused on sexual assault. The law gives victims of sex crimes a significantly wider window to file lawsuits against their attackers. However, this means that the window for false accusations has increased, too.
While the Sexual Abuse and Cover Up Accountability Act doesn’t directly alter California’s criminal code, it may have knock-on effects that put you at risk of criminal charges. Here’s what you should know about this bill, how claims under the law are different from criminal allegations and what you can do if you are accused of a years-old crime.
Understanding the Sexual Abuse and Cover Up Accountability Act
The Act was introduced in 2022 to clarify the statute of limitations for civil claims of sexual assault and abuse. In 2019, before the Act, California extended the limitation period for these claims from two to ten years. However, the prior law did not expressly state whether it was intended to retroactively revive time-barred claims.
This led to significant legal disputes when people attempted to sue for events before 2017. Meanwhile, the defendants argued that because it was not expressly stated that the extended time limit was retroactive, the plaintiffs could not sue for any attack that occurred longer than two years previously.
Instead of waiting for a judicial response, the California legislature took it upon itself to clarify the bill. That’s what the Act is intended to accomplish. Under the Act, the new ten-year limitation period is explicitly retroactive. From now on, anyone who alleges they have been harmed by a sex crime can file a lawsuit based on events that occurred up to a decade ago.
Additionally, the Act states that anyone who suffered an assault on or after January 1st, 2009, can file a civil claim until December 31st, 2025. After this deadline, the decade limitation period will go back into effect. This is intended to make up for the three years during which it was unclear whether a retroactive claim could be filed. In other words, in 2025, it will be possible to file a lawsuit against someone for an alleged sexual assault up to sixteen years ago.
Civil Claims vs. Criminal Cases: What’s the Difference?
It is important to note that the Sexual Abuse and Cover Up Accountability Act does not extend the statute of limitations for criminal charges. The limitation period for criminal sexual assault charges was already ten years. Additionally, in California, people who are assaulted as minors can request a prosecutor file charges until their 40th birthday.
Criminal and civil claims are treated very differently, so the distinction matters. The purpose of a civil lawsuit is to allow people who have been harmed in some way to pursue restitution from the person or organization that hurt them. There is no risk of jail time in a civil lawsuit, only fines and court orders. Because of these comparatively low stakes, the plaintiff only needs to prove that the preponderance of the evidence supports their claims to succeed in their claim.
Criminal cases have significantly greater risks. If you are convicted of felony sexual battery, for example, you could spend up to four years in state prison. You may also face fines, probation, and lifetime placement on the sex offender registry. As such, prosecutors need to prove the guilt of defendants “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Act clarifies that the standard limitation period for civil and criminal sexual assault claims is the same. Survivors can now take both types of legal action against attackers for up to a decade.
The Connection Between Civil and Criminal Cases
How could the Act impact criminal charges if the limitation periods were already so long? It does not directly affect them, but it may increase the number of people who choose to make police reports about alleged assaults more than two years after they occur.
Civil and criminal cases are distinct, and it is possible to face both for the same event. The outcome of a civil case usually has little impact on a criminal trial because the standard of evidence is lower. However, a criminal trial can have a significant impact on civil claims. Even if you are cleared of criminal charges, the fact that there is a trial going on could be used against you during civil lawsuits.
This matters because the extension of the civil statute of limitations gives a financial incentive for people to file claims for events long past. These people may also choose to pursue criminal charges to support their case, and you could face charges for an event that occurred up to a decade ago.
Building Your Legal Defense Against Old Sexual Assault Claims
While it is yet to be seen whether the Act will lead to a rise in sexual assault charges, it is a distinct possibility. If you are charged with a sex crime in Redwood City, California, your first response should be to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your lawyer will help you determine the best defense based on the facts of your case, such as:
- Lack of presence: You were provably not at the scene of the crime when it occurred
- Misidentification: The victim was incorrect when they identified you as their attacker
- Consent: Your accuser actually consented to whatever occurred at the time
At the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib, we are dedicated to defending our clients against all types of criminal charges. We are available to assist you if you have been accused or charged with assault. Time is of the essence. Do not hesitate to reach out to our Redwood City criminal defense law firm to speak with one of our experienced attorneys about your charges.