Fault Lines
13 October 2017
dennis hastert

The “Stop Dennis Hastert Forever” Act

March 9, 2017 (Fault Lines)—The corollary to the Ted Frank Rule[1] is that laws passed in response to a specific crime, or a specific criminal, are also a bad idea. There are invariably a spate of these in the wake of any case that has caught the public’s attention, usually having to do with drugs (disproportionate sentences for heroin and crack,) child abuse (the sex offender registry,) or terrorism (the TSA.)

In Illinois, the legislature is considering a bill that’s another well-intentioned brick on the road to hell.  The Illinois Senate is considering a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex prosecutions. The current version of the law has a pretty generous statute of limitations as it is:

ILCS 720 5/3-6(j) (1) When the victim is under 18 years of age at the time of the offense, a prosecution for criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, or felony criminal sexual abuse may be commenced at any time when corroborating physical evidence is available or an individual who is required to report an alleged or suspected commission of any of these offenses under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act fails to do so.

(2) In circumstances other than as described in paragraph (1) of this subsection (j), when the victim is under 18 years of age at the time of the offense, a prosecution for criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, or felony criminal sexual abuse, or a prosecution for failure of a person who is required to report an alleged or suspected commission of any of these offenses under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act may be commenced within 20 years after the child victim attains 18 years of age.

In other words, there is no statute of limitations if there’s corroborating physical evidence available; and it’s until the child victim turns 38 if there isn’t. As it turns out, that wasn’t good enough:

Legislation that would remove the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes committed against minors, such as the recent case involving former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, sailed through an Illinois Senate Committee on Tuesday.

[…]

Hastert was never charged with any state crimes because the statute of limitations — generally 20 years after a victim’s 18th birthday — had run out. But he was convicted of violating federal banking laws for paying hush money to one of four victims who prosecutors had identified.

In the spirit of reducing burdensome government regulation (of prosecutors,) Senate Bill 189 amends paragraph (j)(1) to

When the victim is under 18 years of age at the time of the offense, a prosecution for criminal sexual assault,aggravated criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, or felony criminal sexual abuse may be commenced at any time.

One of Hastert’s victims, Scott Cross, testified in favor of the bill, saying that he had dealt with the consequences of Hastert’s abuse for most of his life. He also made the curious statement that it takes child molestation victims “an average of 42 years” before they were able to come to terms with the abuse.[2] Cross went on to characterize the 20-year statute of limitations as an “arbitrary deadline” and a “loophole.”

On the other hand, there’s a reason that statutes of limitation exist in the first place:

Memories fade, and witnesses can die or disappear. Such problems can plague child abuse cases, where recollection after so many years may be uncertain, and “recovered” memories faulty, but may nonetheless lead to prosecutions that destroy families.[3]

What the law does is eliminate any temporal or evidentiary check on the prosecutor to file a child sex charge, so he may file at any time he chooses. A case brought 20 years after the fact is tough enough to defend. Bring one 42 years after the fact, as far as defending the case goes, fuhgeddaboudit.

And while the same limitation theoretically applies to the government, the nature of the charges is such that juries are often loath to acquit without positive proof of innocence. Imagine trying to locate an alibi witness to prove that you couldn’t possibly have committed sexual assault – during the Gerald Ford Administration.

The hell of it is, an expanded statute of limitations actually makes sense in the specific case of Dennis Hastert. In the 20 years following the 18th birthday of Scott Cross, his molester rose from being his high school wrestling coach, to the Illinois House of Representatives, to Congress, to the third highest office in the land. If he had brought an accusation during that time, he would have faced an onslaught of media attention, some of it no doubt claiming that he was doing so as a tool of the liberal conspiracy.

Even relatively objective observers would have questioned why he waited so long. And it would take an exceptionally brave or foolhardy prosecutor to bring a charge against the Speaker of the House of Representatives when the only evidence was the word of the victim.  Except Hastert was actually guilty.

But not every defendant is Dennis Hastert. What the proposed law does is make it possible for anyone to be charged with child molestation, at any time, with nothing but the unsupported accusation of a victim. And the only check is the prosecutor’s discretion.

No sane person is in favor of child molestation. But this bill goes too far.

[1] “Laws named after the victim of a crime are a bad idea.”

[2] That’s an oddly precise number, but the article quoting Cross presents it without context.

[3] Stogner v. California, 539 US 607, 631 (2003) (internal citations omitted)

No Comment

Leave a Reply

*

*

By submitting a comment here you grant this site a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution.