Does Sexual Assault Have a Statute of Limitations in Utah?

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

A law called the statute of limitations sets an absolute deadline on how long plaintiffs have to file claims in civil cases, and on how long prosecutors have to file charges in criminal cases.  (There are some rare exceptions where the deadline may be extended, such as the discovery rule in medical malpractice claims.)  The statute varies in length based on jurisdiction and the nature of the underlying claim or charges, but is typically restricted to just a few years at most.  This short window of time is especially controversial with regard to sex offenses, because the victims often hesitate to come forward until well after the statute has expired.  In March of 2015, the Utah Legislature passed HB 277, removing the deadline for civil lawsuits involving child abuse.  But what about criminal cases?

How Long Do Prosecutors Have to File Sex Crime Charges Against Defendants in Utah?

Simply put, Utah has no statute of limitations for most sex crimes.  Generally, Utah Code 76-1-301(2) allows prosecution at any time for nineteen crimes, including the following sex crimes:

  • Rape
  • Rape of a child
  • Object rape
  • Object rape of a child
  • Forcible sodomy
  • Sodomy on a child
  • Sexual abuse of a child
  • Aggravated sexual abuse of a child
  • Aggravated sexual assault

This means that there is no statute of limitations for these sex crimes.  The State of Utah can charge and prosecute rape at any time after the crime was committed.

Generally, the statutes of limitations in Utah are found in Utah Code § 76-1-302 (Time Limitations for Prosecution of Offenses), the Utah deadlines for initiating prosecution are:

  • One year for infractions.
  • Two years for misdemeanors, such as possession of marijuana in small amounts.  (Negligent homicide is exempt from this rule.)
  • Eight years for incest and forcible sexual abuse.

However, prosecution for the following crimes can be initiated at any time, in situations where the offender’s identity is unknown, “but DNA evidence is collected that would identify the person at a later date”:

  • Aggravated Assault
  • Child Abuse
  • Terroristic Threats
  • Child Endangerment
  • Criminal Homicide (Murder, Aggravated Murder, Manslaughter, Negligent Homicide, Vehicular Homicide, Homicide by Assault, Child Abuse Homicide)
  • Kidnapping and Child Kidnapping
  • Rape
  • Aggravated Sexual Assault
  • Burglary
  • Aggravated Burglary
  • Robbery
  • Aggravated Robbery

The only time this rule does not apply is when (1) the underlying statute expired by May 5, 2003, and (2) no criminal charges were subsequently filed.  If the offender is eventually identified by DNA evidence as noted above, prosecution must be initiated within one year.

Statute of Limitations on Old Crimes

The law removing the statute of limitations for these sex crimes was only passed in 2013.  What happens with crimes that were committed before 2013?  What if the victim was a child at the time of the offense, but already turned eighteen by the time the law was passed in 2013?

In 2003, the Supreme Court decided in Stongner v. California that a statute of limitations cannot be extended to re-open the possibility of prosecution for a crime that was already outside the statute of limitations.

This means that if you were charged with a sex crime that was committed before the statute of limitations was removed in 2013, you might be able to get the sex crime charges dropped.  Additionally, the statute of limitations in Utah (unlike some other states) is not dependent on when the victim turns eighteen.  If you are charged with an old sex crime, you should consult a sex crime attorney that can help you fight the statute of limitations.

Which Crimes Are “Sex Crimes?” in Utah

“Sex crimes” or “Sexual Offenses,” as they are called in the Utah Code, are crimes that involve sex or sexual activity.  The sexual offenses in the Utah Criminal Code are:

  • Unlawful sexual activity with a minor
  • Sexual abuse of a minor
  • Unlawful sexual conduct with a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old
  • Rape
  • Rape of a child
  • Object Rape of a child
  • Sodomy
  • Forcible sexual abuse
  • Sexual abuse of a child
  • Aggravated sexual assault

There are so many different crimes that are considered “sex crimes” because each one covers a different type of conduct, and many of them have different penalties based on these differences.

For instance, “rape” and “rape of a child” are separated into two crimes depending on the age of the victim.  Additionally, even though the actual conduct of “sexual intercourse” is the same, rape requires that it was without consent  For rape of a child, consent is not a factor (since children cannot consent to sex).  The penalty is also different for the two crimes, since there is a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for rape and twenty-five years for rape of a child.  There is also a separate statute for when the victim is not a “child,” but is sixteen or seventeen years old.

Other sex crimes have similar differences.  Most of them change their definition depending on whether or not there was penetration of the genitals, where penetration occurred, and what object or body part was used to penetrate the victim.  Additionally, some crimes exist to cover not only the sexual nature of the crime, but also the use of force.

Note that while most of these sex crimes have no statute of limitations, there is a statute of limitations for:

  • Unlawful sexual activity with a minor (a third degree felony);
  • Sexual abuse of a minor (a class A misdemeanor, or third degree felony); and
  • Unlawful sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old (a Class A misdemeanor, or third degree felony).

These three crimes have the possibility of being a third degree felony, so prosecution must be started within the four year statute of limitations.

Ultimately, these crimes are more complex than most types of crime.  An experienced sex crimes attorney can help you understand which charges are inappropriate to the specific situation.  Many times, a defendant can get charges reduced based on the slight differences between these statutes.  Often, the age of the victim and the age of the defendant can reduce the possible sentence, too.

Is Having No Statute of Limitations Fair?

The absence of a statute of limitations on felony sex crimes is relatively common in the United States.  For example, there is no deadline for prosecutors to file rape charges in the states of Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota, or West Virginia.  Likewise, there is no deadline for filing sexual assault charges in Arizona, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, or Wisconsin, subject to a few qualifications.  (The state of Wyoming takes this to an extreme and does not impose a statute of limitations on any criminal charges whatsoever.)

In contrast to many other states, there is no crime of sexual assault in Utah: only aggravated sexual assault, as defined by Utah Code § 76-5-405.  As noted on the list above, aggravated sexual assault is not subject to any deadline on prosecution in the state of Utah.  Rape of a child under 14, object rape, object rape of a child, and  sodomy on a child are also exempt from prosecution deadlines. Utah residents must be made aware of these facts in order to prepare for the possibility of prosecution for alleged sex crimes.

Usually, statutes of limitations exist to protect the accused from having to face trial for crimes that happened a long time ago.  In those cases, witness memory may have degraded, or evidence lost or degraded, to a point where prosecution may be difficult.  While having no statute of limitations for sexual crimes may leave defendants open to prosecution longer, the fact that evidence and memory may degrade over time may make a conviction much more difficult.

On the other side of the issue is concern that victims hesitate to come forward and report that they were the victim of a sex crime.  Because of this, the legislature decided to give them as much time as they need to come forward.  Since sex crimes often go unreported, prosecution of the ones that do get reported is often very strong.  This makes it that much more important to make sure that your attorney is experienced in defending against sex crimes.

If you’ve been charged with a sex offense or other felony or misdemeanor in Utah, you can’t afford to go against the prosecutor without a compassionate and experienced criminal defense attorney on your side in court.  Penalties for sex crimes can involve decades in prison, thousands of dollars in fines and restitution, and mandatory placement on the Sex Offender Registry for decades or even a lifetime.

Utah Passes HB 277, Eliminates Deadline for Civil Child Abuse Claims

“On behalf of victims across the state of Utah,” said Foundation for Survivors of Abuse co-founder Deondra Brown, “we’re excited to know that we can kind of breathe, take our time in healing, and come forward and tackle that big legal case when and if we are ever ready.”

Brown, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, is an ardent supporter of HB 277.  The bill, which was passed unanimously by the Utah House of Representatives and garnered a 24-2 vote of support from the Utah State Senate, eliminated the former four-year deadline, which began counting down once the victim either turned 18 years old or discovered the abuse.  The bill’s chief sponsor was Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan), joined by Senate sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond (R-South Jordan) and over a dozen co-sponsors.

While the bill won support from the majority of Utah’s legislators, some lawmakers were concerned about the implications of removing the legal deadline.  Sen. Scott Jenkins (R-Plain City) and Sen. Gene Davis (D-Salt Lake City) voted against HB 277, with Sen. Jenkins expressing concerns that removing the deadline would increase the risk of unfounded civil claims based on false or distorted memories.

It is important to reiterate that HB 277 affects only civil claims.

HB 277 is now part of the Utah Code under § 78B-2-308.  The law does not encompass all civil suits involving sex offenses, extending only to cover cases involving sexual abuse of children.

A Salt Lake City Criminal Defense Lawyer can Fight for You

Sex crimes attorney Darwin Overson will fight aggressively to protect your rights and to have the charges against you reduced or dismissed.  To set up a free and completely private legal consultation, call Darwin right away at (801) 733-1308.

  • GET YOUR FREE CONSULTATION

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.