HB277: Well-Intentioned, but Troubling

One of the near-certainties of the legislative process is that you’re likely to get laws that have the best of intentions with poor execution. When “it’s for the children” is one of the primary selling points, those odds would make a Vegas bookie very nervous. It looks a lot like HB277 is one of those bills. It intends to remove the statute of limitations on civil actions for child sexual abuse. These are certainly terrible crimes, but this change is very likely to punish more innocent people than guilty ones.

We have a statute of limitations in the first place to protect innocent people. As time passes, witness testimony becomes more unreliable as memory fades and forensic evidence becomes much harder to gather. In a criminal case, a lack of evidence can and often does keep a case from even being prosecuted. Civil cases, however, often use a much lower standard of evidence. These cases can invite bad actors who know that even the allegation of a heinous crime will severely damage their target, even if it’s not true. It also costs any defendant a lot of time and money to defend against even if they ultimately prevail. These are not trivial problems for the innocent.

When the limitation on time to file a suit is removed, the big question is obvious: are there cases where civil suits could not be filed under the current restrictions (four years after turning age 18 or four years after discovery, whichever is later)? While it’s important to be out ahead of potential issues, I’m always kind of leery of solutions in search of a problem. There also seems to be no consideration for inevitable false positives, something that happens with any legal change.

One of the defining characteristics of the American judicial system is that we place a higher priority on protecting the innocent from false charges than getting every single last guilty one. This bill seems to turn that on its head in very dangerous ways. I sincerely hope that Rep. Ivory and Sen. Osmond will take this one back to the drawing board instead of going Helen Lovejoy on us.

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