January 23, 2023

A bill to extend statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes to be heard

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

A bill that would extend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse to enable survivors more time to come forward is expected to be discussed this legislative session.

For children ages 13 to 18, SB 82, would eliminate the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual abuse. Currently, a 13-to-18 year old in New Mexico who has suffered child sexual abuse has six years to report the crime and for prosecutors and police to locate the perpetrator and build a case against them.

If a survivor of sexual abuse is over the age of 18 in New Mexico, and the crime is considered a second degree offense, the current statute of limitations is also six years. The bill would, if enacted, extend that statute of limitations to 15 years.

State Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, is the primary sponsor of the bill.

“For survivors of sexual violence, the statute of limitations was written into law during a time when we didn’t have as many technological advances that preserve data, like text messages, emails, video footage, rape kits and DNA testing. When survivors have the information necessary to proceed with their case, they should be allowed to do so, regardless of the amount of time their healing process took to come forward,” Correa Hemphill said by email.

Stefan Turkheimer, vice president of public policy for Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, told NM Political Report that one of the reasons for the bill’s importance is that, on average, a survivor who suffered child sexual assault or rape does not discuss the incident publicly until age 52.

He said coming forward can be hard for a survivor of child sexual abuse because of the amount of trauma the child experienced and how long it takes for the person to work through it.

“You can imagine how many people fall outside this [statute of limitations] window,” Turkheimer said.

He said that for every 100 individuals who suffer sexual abuse and report it, only one person is ever convicted, which means 99 percent do not result in convictions. Turkheimer said that not all of the 99 percent are the result of the statute of limitations. But, he said, eliminating the statute of limitations for the 13-to-18 year old survivors and extending it in some cases for adults “will go a long way to help people find people ready to listen.”

But, another reason to eliminate the statute of limitations for 13-to-18 year olds is, if the survivor is between the ages of 13 to 18 when the incident occurs, or first begins to occur, the survivor is “probably still under the power and control” of the perpetrator, Turkheimer said.

“They don’t have the ability to come forward without repercussions to themselves. They have to wait until they are on their own to come forward and by then the statute has run out,” Turkheimer said.

In addition, survivors of sexual abuse who live in rural areas could have additional barriers in place both in terms of healing from the emotional trauma as well as barriers in the form of law enforcement being adequately trained to handle such cases.

“The amount of resources you have really does make a difference in how you bring a case forward,” Turkheimer said. “Both for survivor support and police resources. It’s harder to work through the trauma, harder to work the case up, harder to do the things necessary to find justice. I’m speaking in generalities but all those things contribute to delays in being able to bring someone to justice. It’s a more severe problem in rural areas.”

For survivors of sexual abuse who are over the age of 18, the crime must fall under second degree in order for the statute of limitations to be extended to 15 years.

A crime of sexual penetration in the second degree in New Mexico includes use of force, Turkheimer said. That could include someone who experiences sexual abuse in a jail or prison setting by a guard, if the perpetrator using such force the victim suffers bodily injury, if the crime is committed with the help of others, if the perpetrator is armed with a deadly weapon, or if the crime is committed during the act of another felony, such as a home invasion, Turkheimer said.

The Legislature passed a similar bill in the 2020 Legislature but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed it due to a technical provision.

Correa Hemphill said that as a legislator, she feels it’s important to what she can to remove barriers to a sexual abuse survivor’s healing.

“It’s incredible that with so many obstacles in place, survivors still have the inner fortitude and resilience to come forward and proceed with their case. We should do everything in our power to make sure that these survivors have the ability to come forward when they are ready, especially given the incredible amount of structural and societal barriers that exist for survivors,” she said.