N.H. considers eliminating statute of limitations in criminal cases involving sexual assault

  • A bill seeking to eliminate the statute of limitations for all civil actions in sexual assault cases received overwhelming support during a public hearing at the State House on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

Monitor staff
Published: 3/8/2020 11:13:10 AM

Adult victims in New Hampshire have six years to report the most egregious sexual assault crimes to law enforcement before the clock runs out.

Children sexually abused before age 18 have 22 years, or until they turn 40, to bring forward an allegation to authorities.

A bill currently before the state’s House of Representatives seeks to eliminate those deadlines and thereby allow victims of sexual assault, regardless of their age, the opportunity to report the abuse at any time. However, the bill as written is being met with vocal opposition as it moves out of committee to the House floor for a full vote this week.

Following a public hearing last week, a majority of lawmakers serving on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hit pause on the bill, arguing the issue at hand needs a further study so alternatives to eliminating the statute of limitations altogether can also be considered. In an 18-2 vote, House Bill 1586 was recommended for interim study.

“The committee felt that the resulting inequity shouldn’t exist but there had not been a subcommittee to study or amend,” wrote Rep. David Welch, a Kingston Republican, on behalf of the majority. “The testimony in favor of passage was heart-wrenching and most of us were uncomfortable with the current six-year limitation, but there was no consensus on what it should be.”

The two lawmakers in the minority – representatives David Meuse and Laura Pantelakos – said the bill should be approved by the full House.

Supporters of the bill argue current law is dated and sets arbitrary deadlines for victims to come forward, despite the fact that research shows the majority of sexual assault crimes are never reported and, when they are, a report is often not made until years, or even decades, later. Opponents of HB 1586 say eliminating the statute of limitations goes too far but that they would be open to conversations about extending the current timeframes of six years for adults and 22 years for children.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat, said the law has been amended several times previously, including in 1990 when the timeframe to prosecute felony-level child sexual abuse was extended until the victim’s 40th birthday. However, she said, the state has only ever gone as far as to study proposals aimed at eliminating the statute of limitations.

“The statute we have right now isn’t based on any data that reflects the true effect of sexual trauma on victims,” said Altschiller, who works part-time as a community liaison at the Seacoast crisis center HAVEN. “These are random numbers that other legislators came up with years ago because that is what they thought was best at the time. Here we are now doing all of these things to preserve evidence, including rape kits, but, on the other hand, telling survivors of sexual assault that they have a deadline.”

New Hampshire is not alone in considering changes to its criminal code. Last year, 13 states passed legislation that eliminated criminal statutes of limitation and nine states voted to extend current statutes. An additional 12 states have proposed legislation this year to abolish criminal statutes of limitation and 13 have introduced bills to extend it, according to testimony from Amanda Mace, program director at Turning Points Network in Sullivan County.

“Eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for sexual assault is aimed to ensure that survivors can access justice when they are ready, and to protect victims of sexual assault over perpetrators who are able to manipulate the system and avoid getting caught,” Mace told the committee.

While the committee received testimony overwhelmingly in support of HB 1586, it also heard from those in opposition, including the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Jeanne Hruska, political director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, said interview Thursday with the Monitor that the civil liberties organization has consistently opposed eliminating criminal statutes of limitations, which serve as “essential safeguards for due process and against government overreach.”

She said as more time passes, evidence grows stale, witnesses disappear, memories fade and records are lost, making it increasingly difficult for the accused to prepare a meaningful defense.

“Eliminating the criminal SOL (statute of limitations) and allowing criminal charges to be brought decades after an alleged event make it exceedingly difficult for an innocent person to mount a defense,” Hruska said in her written testimony to the committee. “This risks wrongful convictions and injustice.”

While eliminating the statute of limitations goes too far, she said, “I think a conversation can be had about extending the SOL but that’s a very different conversation.”

This legislative session, lawmakers are also considering a Senate bill to eliminate the time frame that victims of sexual abuse have to file a civil claim against their abusers. That bill is receiving broader support than the one to change the state’s criminal statute. For those 18 years of age and older, civil action must be brought within three years under current state law. Children under the age of 18 now have until their 30th birthday.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)



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