Iowa lawmakers consider changes to sexual assault statute of limitations, court proceedings

By: - January 31, 2022 5:19 pm

A Senate subcommittee met on Jan. 31, 2022 to consider changes to the state’s statute of limitations for sexual assault cases. Seated at the table, from left, are Sens. Janet Petersen, Brad Zaun and David Rowley. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Survivors of childhood sexual assault would have more time to pursue civil action against their abusers under one of several proposed changes to Iowa’s sexual assault laws.

Legislators took aim at the issue last year, passing a law to remove the time limit for a victim of childhood sex abuse to bring criminal charges against their abuser. Previously, victims had only until their 33rd birthday to prosecute. 

Sen. Brad Zaun proposed what he called “the next logical step,” which would allow survivors to bring a civil case against their abuser after the abuser is convicted on criminal charges. Iowans who experienced sexual abuse as a minor currently have one year after they turn 18 to make a civil claim.

Zaun, R-Urbandale, said Iowa was “way, way overdue” in reforming its statute of limitations laws for sexual assault survivors.

“I’ve heard from literally probably hundreds of victims through the years, giving me their story,”  he said. “It just disgusts me that this is going on, and I’m very passionate about it.”

Some survivors raised concerns that tying civil cases to criminal convictions may prevent victims from coming forward. 

Kylie DeWees, a law school student and survivor of childhood sexual assault, told lawmakers that she decided not to press criminal charges against her assailant when she was in high school.

“When the police officers came to me and wanted to prosecute, I was being recruited for college athletics, I was about to go off to college,” she said. “I didn’t want to be known for this.”

DeWees said she would prefer to pursue a civil case, but the bill, as proposed, would require a criminal trial first. To obtain a conviction, she said, she would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the abuse happened, whereas civil court requires a lower standard of proof.

Zaun acknowledged the legislation wasn’t perfect, but said some compromises were necessary to win support with Senate Republicans. He told the Iowa Capital Dispatch that he was unsure if he had the votes to pass this year’s proposal, but said it looked “pretty promising.”

A Senate subcommittee voted unanimously to move the bill forward. Lobbyists for several sexual assault and human trafficking prevention organizations spoke in favor.

The bill is part of a larger push to reform Iowa’s prosecution process for sexual assault. The House Judiciary Committee approved two bills Monday to change the ways courts handle sexual assault proceedings.

One proposal, House Study Bill 529, would prohibit lawyers from asking victims of sexual assault about their sexual history in depositions. The bill does allow for certain exceptions.

“In sexual abuse cases, I think it’s important that victims can come forward without being victimized once more by being questioned on their past sexual behavior,” said Rep. Cherielynn Westrich, R-Ottumwa. “This bill will protect victims in post-conviction proceedings as well as we do in trial.”

The Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to move the bill, marking it eligible for floor debate. A Senate subcommittee recommended the passage of companion legislation.

House lawmakers on the committee also unanimously moved House Study Bill 522. If a child or a person with a cognitive impairments or disability spoke to someone out of court about sexual or physical abuse they endured, the proposed bill would allow that confidant to testify about the conversation.

Bill tracker

  • Senate File 2095 would remove the statute of limitations for a survivor of childhood sex abuse to make a civil case against their convicted abuser and sue for damages. A Senate subcommittee approved the bill Monday afternoon.
  • House Study Bill 529 would prohibit questioning sexual assault victims about their sexual history in depositions. The House Judiciary Committee moved the bill on Monday with an amendment.
    • A companion bill in the Senate, Senate Study Bill 3018, passed in subcommittee with a recommendation for an amendment.
  • House Study Bill 522 would allow a confidant of a child or person with disabilities to testify about conversations they had with the individual regarding sexual or physical abuse. The House Judiciary Committee moved the bill with an amendment.
    • A companion bill in the Senate, Senate Study Bill 3016, passed in subcommittee with a recommendation for an amendment

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.