A bill in the state House that failed to become law last year is getting another big push this year—to remove the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes.
Advocates from the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center this legislative session will lobby for House Bill 1155, which would allow prosecutors and survivors to pursue charges against the assailant in serious sexual abuse cases no matter how much time has passed since the crime.
The proposed legislation removes the statute for first- through third-degree rapes, child molestation, and other serious sexual assault charges.
As the state law stands right now, in most cases, rape survivors have three years after the crime to pursue charges. That makes the state one of the shortest statute of limitations for rape in the country. (If they file a police report within the first year, it's 10 years.) Advocates will also support another bill—House Bill 2353—to test a backlog of 6,000 rape kits to be tested and more resources for the Washington State Crime Lab.
Prosecutors say the statute of limitations for rape encourages survivors to come forward earlier rather than later, and as more time passes, the harder it will be to prosecute an assaulter. Memory fades, and corroborating evidence becomes more difficult.
But there are numerous reasons rape survivors don't come forward until after significant time has passed. Rape and sexual assault are by far the most underreported crimes; only 23 percent were reported to law enforcement in 2016, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.
House Bill 1155, sponsored by Republican state representative Dan Griffey, from Allyn in the 35th District, had bipartisan support with 12 co-sponsors including Democrats Tina Orwall, of Des Moines, and Nicole Macri, of Seattle. The legislation made it through first and second readings.
At a public hearing in February 2017, Griffey told the House Appropriations Committee the bill he sponsored was personal to him; his wife, Dinah Griffey, gave an emotional testimony at the public hearing, saying she had been sexually assaulted by her stepfather starting when she was 8 years old. Efforts to prosecute her stepfather years later led to dead ends because of the statute.
"As survivors and loved ones of survivors, we live with this every day. It doesn't just go away because there's an expiration date for the abuser's crime," Dinah Griffey said. "Please be clear: If a sex crime is committed in our state, the criminal should never be safe from prosecution. Ever."
The ultimate decision to press charges can often trigger survivors to relive their nightmare. Continuing to talk about the rape, making it public, and facing their attacker in trial are all parts of the process survivors have described as a mixed bag. Of the 2,200-plus rapes in Washington state reported to law enforcement in 2016, only 476 of them led to arrests, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
There's also a serial nature to the crime, Orwall told lawmakers in Olympia last year. That is, there's a good chance that an assaulter has raped more than one person. If one survivor comes forward accusing an assailant, that could prompt others—others whose statutes have passed—to come out of the woodwork.
In 2013, state legislators extended the statute in cases of child sexual abuse; but adult cases haven't received the same attention. Advocates say now, with the #MeToo campaign garnering national recognition, it's the right time to change that.
Others have concern about what that would mean for prosecutors. Democratic state senator Manka Dhingra, from Redmond of the 45th District and a King County prosecuting attorney, told Seattle Met in December she's not sure whether she would support the bill; the longer a case goes underreported, the harder it is to prosecute.
Dhingra, who co-founded the Southeast Asian domestic violence survivor advocacy group Chaya, said she didn't necessarily think extending or removing the statute would lead to more prosecutions since that's not generally the reason behind someone choosing not to report.
"When they've been traumatized, they're really not thinking about statutes of limitations," said Democratic state senator Manka Dhingra, from Redmond of the 45th District. To report the crime, "people have to be in the right frame of mind." A higher priority for her would be to ensure rape kits are getting tested and the state crime lab has the resources it needs.
Mary Ellen Stone, director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, Seattle Met she's also not sure changing the statute would necessarily lead to more prosecutions. But, she added, it's still an important statement to survivors.
"It may not make it any easier for victims," she told Seattle Met. What it will say is, 'We want to hear from you.'"
Updated 11:23am on January 9 to include an interview with Manka Dhingra.