AUGUSTA, Maine — Prosecutors would have longer to bring criminal charges and all victims of sexual assaults would have no time limit on bringing lawsuits if the perpetrator was a person in authority over the victim, under a measure before lawmakers.
“It does limit it to people who have committed these offenses who are in a position of authority,” the legislation’s author Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said in an interview. “This is people who have a responsibility or an authority over other individuals like a psychologist or psychiatrist, teacher or coach somebody like that where there is an unequal relationship between the actor and the victim.”
She said her bill would increase the statute of limitations for a criminal action from the current six years after the act to 10 years after the act. It would allow a civil lawsuit to be filed at any time. The current limit for civil action is also basically six years but can be longer under certain conditions, such as when the accused is not residing in the state.
Haskell said her legislation was prompted by a case of a person who had been seduced by a therapist and it was not until therapy with another psychologist that the sex assault was remembered by the individual.
“By then, the six-year statute of limitations had run out,” she said. “I think we need to change that.”
Haskell said as therapies for dealing with repressed trauma improve, victims are finding they no longer can get prosecutors to file criminal charges because the six years have passed and they then find they cannot even file a lawsuit for damages caused by the perpetrator.
Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the issue of setting limits on when crimes can be prosecuted has always generated controversy. Under current laws, only murder cases have no limits.
Current state law says if the victim is under 16 years of age and the offender is older than 16, there is no time limit for bringing charges in cases of sexual assault or for unlawful sexual contact.
“There are a lot of people who say six is not enough, and there is a ton of people that say six is enough,” he said. “We will have to air all of that out in the coming weeks after we have a public hearing.”
Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the other co-chairman of the panel, agreed the issue has been controversial and debated before in the committee and in the Legislature. He said lawmakers have learned of serious unintended consequences by retroactively applying a policy.
“The concern that is sometimes expressed is going retroactive and changing the rules kind of thing,” he said. “We did that on the sex offender registry and created quite a controversy.”
Plummer said he will keep an open mind on the measure but said he will need to be convinced of a need to change the current laws.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is the Democratic senator on the panel and has served a decade on the committee. He said the current limits were the result of lengthy committee deliberations and floor debate.
“After talking with the advocates at the time we picked six years for the criminal limit,” he said. “Is that the right time limit? I don’t know, and I think it is good to take another look at that limit.”
Gerzofsky said he would rely “a lot” on what prosecutors say at the public hearing on the bill. He said it may be time to give prosecutors more time to bring a criminal case against a perpetrator, particularly one in a position of authority over the victim.
He is concerned that the bill is coming to the Criminal Justice Committee. He said while the statute of limitations for prosecutions is appropriate, the civil limits belong in the Judiciary Committee.
Haskell said she has proposed both the 10-year limit on criminal prosecutions and the removal of all time limits on lawsuits to start a public policy debate. She said she is convinced the criminal limit should be longer than the current six years, and believes the committee will settle on a fair time period.
“Maybe on the civil they want to sit a limit like 15 or 20 years,” she said. “But I don’t see how we can leave it at six years.”
The committee will hold a public hearing on the measure next month.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated where Sen. Garrett Mason resides. Mason lives in Lisbon Falls, not Livermore Falls.