Posted in News on February 5, 2019
Montana Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, introduced House Bill No. 109 into 2019 Montana Legislature in December 2018. This bill proposed a revision to the state’s current statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases involving child victims. The bill had no opponents during a January 2019 House Judiciary Committee hearing, and is currently under review.
If the bill passes into law, victims who suffered sex crimes as children in Montana would no longer have to contend with a time limit on when they can report sex crimes.
Montana’s Current Sex Crime Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations is a time limit for when claimants must bring their lawsuits, or else forfeit the right to report crimes. States enact statutes of limitations to encourage claimants to bring their claims as soon as possible. Otherwise, the justice system would not be just for defendants, as claimants could wait until the destruction or deterioration of evidence the defendant could have used to combat the claim. Only some states have statutes of limitations on child sex crime cases.
The current law in Montana, Montana Code Section 45-1-205, gives victims 20 years after the victim reaches 18 years old to report the perpetrator, if it is a felony offense. For misdemeanor offenses, victims have a maximum of five years after turning 18 if the victim was under 18 at the time of the crime. If a victim did not want to, or otherwise could not, come forward with his or her claim within these time limits, he or she would lose the right to report the crime. Unfortunately, this strict law led many sexual crime survivors to lose the opportunity for justice, since they did not come forward with their claims soon enough. The new bill would change that.
What Does HB 109 Say?
The proposed changes to Section 45-1-205 of the law would eliminate the sentences imposing a statute of limitations on victims who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense. If the person was over the age of 18 at the time of the sex crime, the 10-year statute of limitations would still apply to the case. If under 18, however, there would be no 20-year or five-year time limit after turning 18. Instead, the victim would have the right to commence a prosecution for a felony or misdemeanor sexual offense at any time.
HB 109 would completely eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases in Montana. It would make Montana the 38th state to have lifted the time limit on sex crime cases involving child victims. Many states have enacted this change because of the nature of child sexual abuse. Survivors may not come forward with their allegations until much later. This unfortunately could result in losing the right to bring the offender to justice. The existing statute of limitations could prevent prosecutors from holding child sexual abusers accountable for their actions.
Rep. Dunwell and supporters of the bill do not believe victims of child sexual abuse should lose the right to hold their perpetrators responsible for damages simply for missing a deadline. Imposing a deadline could force a sexual assault survivor to come forward with his or her story too soon. It could also give child sexual offenders the opportunity to escape conviction and punishment – letting them get away with their crimes. Changing the law by eliminating the statute of limitations protects the victim rather than the offender.
Support for the Bill
HB 109 had 11 proponents and zero opponents during the most recent Committee hearing. Attorney John Heenan of Heenan & Cook, PLLC, in Billings, Montana, represented 31 child sexual abuse survivors. Heenan stated that his clients could only file civil cases against their perpetrator, high school athletic trainer James Jensen, because of the statute of limitations. The bill is currently still in draft form.