California’s Child Molestation Law: Giant Statute of Limitations Loophole

Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

The recent arrest of a former Modesto teacher highlights just how treacherous California’s statute of limitation law can be regarding allegations of molesting a minor.

Christopher James Hooker, 41, is, to state the obvious, not a sympathetic figure.  He left his wife and family to live with a former student.  He and the student are adamant that their sexual relationship did not begin until after she turned 18.  Not surprisingly, the student’s mom hates Mr. Hooker, and has vowed revenge.

Thanks to California’s statute of limitations law, her wish might come true.  On Friday, April 6, 2012, Hooker was arrested and charged with sexual assault of a minor.  The charges do not, however, relate to the women he recently moved in with.  Apparently, the prosecutor couldn’t find any evidence that his current relationship is unlawful. Instead, the charges filed against Mr. Hooker relate to a different student—a 17 year old he befriended while teaching back in 1998.

It is a common misconception that murder is the only crime that doesn’t carry a statute of limitation.  That may have been the case several decades ago, but not anymore.  In fact some states including California have abolished the statute of limitations for aggravated rape (which among other things can require that the victim be seriously injured).

In addition, the legislature has made it much easier for prosecutors to file molestation charges almost at any time.  At first, the California legislature voted to abolish the statute of limitation retroactively, but the courts struck that down as unconstitutional.  The current statute of limitations for filing charges of molestation against a minor is ten years.  That would seem to be a problem for prosecutors filing charges against Mr. Hooker for what he allegedly did 14 years ago.

There is, however, a giant loophole in California statute of limitation law.  Molestation charges can also be brought one year from the date it is reported to the authorities regardless of when that happens, and even if the ten-year time limit has expired.  That’s probably why prosecutors have concluded that the statute of limitations isn’t a problem with respect to Mr. Hooker.

As a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, I know that most people are entirely untroubled by this situation.  Most people seem to believe that no amount of time is too long to file molestation charges.  On some emotional level, that reaction might seem satisfying.  But statute of limitations charges exist for a reason. The more time passes the harder it is to find evidence.  And the memory of witnesses is especially likely to fade over time.  Moreover, child molestation charges are being made in an increasing number of divorce cases, where couples are fighting over custody.  It’s an extremely serious charge to make against someone, and unfortunately it is all too easy to make.

Time will tell whether the charges brought against Mr. Hooker are warranted.  A few things are already clear.  One is that the charges have already served one of its intended purposes.  The former student broke up with him after he was arrested. Her mother is no doubt happier.

It’s also clear that statute of limitations issues in sexual abuse cases are no place for amateurs. It is an especially important area, and one that you should bring to an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

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