A bill introduced by a group of seven state Senate lawmakers would fundamentally change when sex crimes can be prosecuted by repealing the current six-year time limit on sexual assault in the first, second and third degree.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Russell Ruderman of the Big Island, who introduced the bill (SB 2943) on the behalf of a Puna resident who advocates for victims' rights.
"This was particularly aimed at situations where there's incest and family abuse," Ruderman told KITV4. "I think the idea behind it is in extremely important violent crimes, that there shouldn't be a statute of limitations."
Under Hawaii law, there are a variety of existing restrictions as to when felonies and misdemeanors can be prosecuted.
For murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, there is no time limit to bring a case forward. For sexual assault in the first degree (rape) there is a six-year limit. However, when the victim of a sexual assault is a child, the clock doesn't start ticking until after the child turns 18. Meanwhile, any case that involves DNA evidence gets an additional 10 years on top of the existing limitation.
"These are due process protections to assure that when a case comes to trial, the evidence won't be stale or missing, or destroyed or anything like that," said State Public Defender John Tonaki, who said his office would likely testify against Ruderman's bill should it receive a hearing.
The first stop for the bill would be the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Clayton Hee. Hee believes the bill will peak the interest of colleagues, but its passage is not guaranteed.
"I suspect that it would receive a good response, at least for sexual assault in the first degree," said Hee. "The second and third degree may cause some concern, particularly with the public defender's office and some of the defense counsel."
Tonaki says statutes of limitations are well established under the law because memories and evidence tend to fade with the passage of time. Moreover, someone could attempt to use the legal system for their own purposes if there was no time limit to bring a sexual assault case forward.
"Potentially, you could see abuses of this system in divorce cases or child custody battles, those types of situations," he said.
A similar bill in the state House (HB 2034) introduced by Rep. Mele Carroll would repeal the statute of limitations on sexual assault in the first and second degree, as well as continuous sexual assault, for any victim under the age of 14. The bill passed the Human Services Committee last week.