By Melody Gutierrez
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Wednesday that eliminates the 10-year statute of limitations on rape -- a concern that emerged last year as dozens of women stepped forward to accuse actor Bill Cosby of rape but were unable to pursue criminal charges.
The new law will not help the women in the Cosby case, however, because it applies to rapes and sexual assaults committed after the legislation takes effect Jan. 1.
Victims groups praised Brown for signing the bill, which they said will ensure that those who need more time to report their crimes are still able to seek justice.
"California is telling victims of rape we stand behind you and there is no timeline for justice," said state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino (San Bernardino County), who authored the bill, SB813.
Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents dozens of the women accusing Cosby, pushed for the legislation to end what she called an arbitrary timeline to report sexual assaults.
"There is no statute of limitations on the devastating effects I have endured for two decades," said one of Cosby's accusers, "Casey," who joined her attorney, Allred, at a hearing in April at the state Capitol. She did not give her real name.
Allred said she hopes other states will follow California in eliminating their statute of limitations.
"The passage of this new law means that the courthouse doors will no longer be slammed shut in the face of rape victims," Allred said in a statement Wednesday. "It puts sexual predators on notice that the passage of time may no longer protect them from serious criminal consequences for their acts of sexual violence."
But opponents of the bill, including law professors, public defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union, warned that the change threatens a justice system that ensures that people accused of crimes have the ability to defend themselves.
"The statute of limitations on the prosecution of criminal charges has been a bedrock protection in our legal system since the founding of our nation -- and for good reason," a group of 62 current and former criminal law professors wrote to the governor to ask him to veto the bill.
The professors, including Ty Alper, associate dean at the UC Berkeley School of Law, wrote that eliminating the statute of limitations could lead to wrongful convictions or slow the prosecution of sex crimes by removing an incentive for law enforcement and prosecutors to act quickly.
Criminal statutes of limitations date back to colonial times, the professors wrote, to ensure people accused of crimes have the ability to mount a defense by collecting evidence and finding alibis.
Natasha Minsker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Sacramento office, said state law already allowed for extending the statute of limitation in cases where DNA evidence became available. She said she worries prosecutors will pursue cases based on a witness' memory in a decades-old case.
"We know memories change over time," Minsker said. "That's how people are wrongfully convicted."
Supporters, like San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos, said the bill does not change the burden of proof needed for a conviction, but instead allows prosecutors to pursue cases they can prove. The state Senate and Assembly unanimously approved the bill last month.
"We think this will aid in allowing sexual assault survivors to come forward and report their crimes to police," said Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Action Alliance in Sacramento. "There are so many reasons a victim of sexual assault doesn't come forward at the time or soon after. This allows for justice to prevail."
Brown signed the bill ahead of Friday's deadline to act on legislation. Brown also signed a bill by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that creates a new standard of proof for proving a wrongful conviction, which supporters said will help those seeking a new trial to prove their innocence.
Other bills signed Wednesday allow people who are serving sentences in county jails for low-level felonies to vote and require ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to do comprehensive background checks on their drivers.
(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle