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Topical focus: sex crimes and statutes of limitations

The premise underlying statutes of limitations in American law is sometimes misunderstood by people who criticize them for various reasons and argue that they work a great injustice rather than serving any beneficial purpose.

That begs an initial twofold question in any discussion involving so-called SOLs, namely this: What are they, and what exactly is their purpose?

Simply put, a statute of limitations -- whether it pertains to a personal injury suffered in a vehicle accident, a securities fraud claim, a criminal issue or any other subject matter -- sets a cut-off date beyond which no legal action can be brought regarding the matter.

The reason for such a statute is this: Leaving the claim-filing door open for an indefinite period means that no finality would ever attach to a matter. Importantly, litigation could be commenced decades after an alleged matter occurred, with evidence being notably stale, witnesses muddied in their recollections or perhaps even dead and intervening factors over time influencing the "truth" in ways that would ultimately make assessing it impossible.

Notwithstanding that, some critics of SOLs still lambast them on the grounds that they can prevent justice from occurring in a given case.

That is certainly the sentiment held by proponents of one California legislative bill that seeks to eliminate criminal law statutes of limitations completely when they relate to certain specified sex offenses. Advocates of that would-be law are currently lobbying for its passage by state lawmakers.

Their thinking is understandable. So, too, though, is the rejoinder of a broad swath of critics who oppose any change in currently operative statutes. As noted in a recent media account spotlighting their position, "lack of evidence [at some remote, far-off date] is a key reason why statutes of limitations exist."

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