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Criminal sexual assault statutes of limitations vary in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

Illinois' time limit on rape charges can still let attackers off the hook

by Taryn Luntz
May 22, 2007

To get away with murder in Illinois, you probably have to be extremely clever or unusually lucky. But to get away with rape – under some circumstances – you just have to be patient.

Under Illinois statute of limitations laws, rape victims have three years to report the crime and an additional seven years to file criminal charges. After that, unless DNA evidence is discovered, the offender will get off scot-free.

“The principle is an old one,” said Stephen Presser, an expert in legal history at Northwestern University. “Somebody, somewhere, early on in the common law decided that it’s just too difficult to try these cases after too much time has passed.”

Statutes of limitations exist to provide incentive to prosecute quickly and to prevent trials with old evidence and forgetful witnesses from clogging up the courts, Presser said.

“Generally, it’s an act of the legislature. So in a way it’s a decision by the people’s representatives and a decision by the people. Often in the law things aren’t absolute, and you’re balancing policies.”

In Illinois, criminal sexual assault – which is sometimes called Class A felony rape or 1st degree sexual assault in other states – is when an offender uses force or threat of force to rape a victim.

As rape victim advocates continue to press for increased awareness of the challenges victims of sexual crimes face, many state legislatures are responding by adjusting the statutes of limitations or eliminating them altogether for those types of crimes.

“It isn’t as hard for someone to go the police and say ‘my house was broken into,’” said Lyn Schollett, general counsel for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“They don’t have to worry about going through a physically invasive collection, or about being questioned over and over about why they live in that neighborhood or left a house key hidden in the backyard. That’s the sort of thing that happens to rape victims.” 

In some cases, victims continue to be assaulted or harassed by their attackers after the rape, Schollett said, or they are afraid they will be mistreated in the criminal justice system.

Schollett said that a series of laws passed in Illinois since 2000 have vastly improved the legal situation for rape victims.

One of these laws eliminated the statute of limitations for cases where DNA evidence is found within 10 years of the crime. Many other states have made similar amendments in the wake of improvements in DNA technology. 

But the Illinois DNA exception only applies when the victim cannot identify his or her attacker – a provision Schollett said is a significant flaw.

“From a practical perspective, it is much harder to prove a consent case than a stranger case, no question,” she said. “But I think we as a society are reluctant to believe that most rapes are committed by people known to the victim. It’s much more comfortable to believe that danger exists in the dark alley with the unknown stranger than it is to believe that danger exists with your neighbor, your uncle, your professor.”

“If there’s any provision of law that we would like to see changed, it’s that,” she said. “We still have room for significant growth in Illinois.”