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July 22, 2024 5:08 am

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Michigan Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Package Could Remain an ‘Orphan’

Credit: iStock

by Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance

Bills expanding the amount of time victims would have to sue their perpetrators and eliminate the statute of limitations for more criminal sexual conduct offenses were not put up for a vote last week during a marathon House session, even though they were on the agenda.

In the past, the bills have had bipartisan support, as have many of the other bills known as “Nassar bills” born from efforts to address the rights of victims of sexual violence after about 200 women and girls testified in court against former Team USA gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar after decades of sexual abuse. He was sentenced to essentially three life sentences from federal court and two Michigan courts on child pornography charges and criminal sexual conduct charges. 

However, this time around, under the first bicameral Democratic majority in Michigan’s Legislature in nearly 40 years, Democrats and Republicans are expressing concerns that could leave the efforts behind for a fourth legislative session.

“I really thought we were there,” state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) told the Advance last week following the session where lawmakers took up legislation like clean energy standards, but not the sexual violence bills on the agenda.

Brixie is spearheading the six bills she calls the “orphan packages” left behind each year in the Nassar package concerning statute of limitations and governmental immunity. 

She noted strong Republican opposition to the bills and questions within her own party, and said that the Democratic caucus “really just ran out of time to address all of the concerns.”

Statute of limitations and governmental immunity

The cost of being sexually assaulted is too high, several survivors of sexual violence told lawmakers in a June 6 House Criminal Justice Committee, offering their support for the bills and recounting their stories navigating the justice system, school and work as survivors. 

They talked about losing relationships, missing out on key moments in life due to trauma and feeling voiceless as Michigan’s laws surrounding sexual violence limited their options after their assaults.

House Bills 44824483 and 4484 would increase the statute of limitations for sexual assault victims to sue their perpetrators in a civil cases from the current criteria, which is three years after a person realizes they are a victim of criminal sexual conduct or their 28th birthday, whichever is later.

The bills would raise eligibility to whichever is the longest: when they reach 52 years of age, 10 years after the time the claim accrues, or 7 years after the individual discovers they were the victim of criminal sexual conduct.

But if the victim’s perpetrator was convicted for the act of criminal sexual conduct, there would be no statute of limitations to file a civil suit to seek damages under the legislation.

It was a decade-long legal battle, Kierra Dallas, 28, told lawmakers at the June 6 hearing, to get a criminal conviction against her science teacher who sexually assaulted her many times since she was 12 years old. It took her until she was 18 years old to come forward and tell police what had happened, so by the time she filed a civil suit against her perpetrator, after the criminal conviction, she was 28 years old and no longer eligible to file.

“You guys have the opportunity here to change the law in our state for the better and to stand with all the survivors on the right side of justice, rather than be with the perpetrators and the institutions who normally allow the abuse to persist,” Dallas said. “I along with every other survivor of sexual assault have done our part and all I ask is that you stand with the legislators who are actively seeking justice for survivors and do the same, please.”

Upon enactment of the bills, there would be a two-year revival period for all victims of sexual abuse, regardless of statute of limitations, to file civil lawsuits. 

In 2018, such a revival window was opened up for Nassar survivors. But it was a 90-day window for abuse after 1996, when Nassar began his medical career, and included other stipulations like the abuse having to come at the hands of a medical professional under the guise of medical treatment — essentially only including those in the Nassar case during that period.

House Bill 4485 would eliminate statute of limitations for second and third degree criminal sexual conduct.

Criminal sexual conduct (CSC) in Michigan comes in four degrees, with the offenses starting at fourth degree, carrying up to two years in prison, and going up to first degree, which can result in a life sentence. 

Currently, only first degree CSC has no statute of limitations for victims to seek criminal charges against their perpetrators. Adult victims of second and third degree have 10 years and those who were minors at the time of the crime have 15 years or until their 28th birthday, whichever is later.

Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns), who has been the primary sponsor and co-sponsor of several other bills within the “Nassar bills” umbrella, offered across-the-board opposition to all the bills that passed the House Criminal Justice Committee during the Oct. 31 meeting.

He raised concerns about floods of old claims, due to the retroactivity of the bills, being brought into the court system for cases that he said will be next to impossible to prove without physical evidence decades later.

Filler told the Advance this week that Republicans have not been included in the conversations surrounding these bills. Rather than the bills coming from “a good place” where they address a certain scandal overburdening the court system, he said, they seem to cater to class action attorneys who “don’t feel like they’ve been taken care of.” 

Rather than be “pro-victim,” the bills are “pro-lawyer fees,” Filler contended.

“That’s not how you make, in my eyes, legislation that is so serious,” Filler said. “We’re opening up all claims for the next two years … all claims and that scares the shit out of me and that should scare anybody who cares about efficiency and rule of law. … Plus, the criminal sexual conduct for second and third being treated the same as first, which they are not — clearly they are not. This whole thing strikes me as a really big distortion of the justice system that I don’t think I’m gonna support going forward.”

His Republican colleagues on the Criminal Justice Committee, Reps. Robert Bezotte (R-Howell), Mike Harris (R-Waterford) and Brian BeGole (R-Antrim Twp.), joined opposition for all six bills, with Rep. Mike Mueller (R-Linden) passing on HB 4482, 4483, 4486 and 4487.

In presenting the bills to the Republican caucus, Filler said he told his colleagues that the bills will benefit lawyers and unearth a barrage of old claims that can’t be proven and demean the justice system for those with provable claims within the current statute.

And Filler said he’s heard the same concerns from Democratic colleagues, which would make it hard for them to use their slim majority to push through the bills in the House. Additionally, he said he’d like to see the bills reconsidered after conversations with stakeholders and courts to ask those actually impacted how to best serve all victims, and not simply “ram through” this legislation.

That’s not how you make, in my eyes, legislation that is so serious. We’re opening up all claims for the next two years … all claims and that scares the shit out of me and that should scare anybody who cares about efficiency and rule of law.

– Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns)

House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) spokesperson Amber McCann said in the early hours of Friday after session had ended that there were still conversations Brixie needed to have within the Democratic caucus before the bills could receive a vote.

“There’s just more work to be done … just a combination of things, some questions and issues that we ran into on the legislation,” McCann said. “I know there were a few members that still had things that they needed to work through. … We’ll see if she makes some progress. It’s always a possibility.”

The final agendas for the House have not been determined for this week and the House is not voting on any bills Tuesday, McCann told the Advance Monday afternoon.

The other bills in the package, House Bills 4486 and 4487, concern Michigan’s governmental immunity shield, where governmental entities are not subject to tort liability

The bills would strike out immunity from civil cases for public universities, colleges, or school districts and their employees if the schools had knowledge or reasonably should have had knowledge about a case involving criminal sexual conduct.

Federal rules, such as Title IX and the Clery Act, outline much of schools’ obligations to students as victims of crimes.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison, offered her support to all the bills back in the June 6 House committee meeting.

“I think that rape any form is murder of the soul — and so like murder, there should be no statute of limitations,” Aquilina said. “Governmental immunity, there should be none because we can’t allow immunity to shield professional predators so that the government becomes a co conspirator to predatory behavior.” 

There are many organizations that have written into the Legislature to either support or oppose the bills:

Opposing HB 4482-4487 Michigan Association of State Universities

Opposing HB 4482, HB 4485 and HB 4486 Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators.Michigan Association of School BoardsMichigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators

Opposing HB 4482 Michigan Catholic ConferenceMichigan Association of Non Public Schools

Supporting HB 4482-4487 Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment BoardMichigan Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual ViolenceRape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAIN)CHILD USAdvocacyMichigan Association for Justice

Supporting HB 4485 Michigan Sheriffs’ Association

What’s next

The bills have gone through a few changes in an effort to eliminate any unintended consequences and address concerns from those who oppose the bills, Brixie said.

She’s hopeful that the bills will be put up for a vote and that they will pass. However, there is one standard from which she is unwilling to deviate.

“When people have made suggestions about, ‘Why not change this; why not change that?’ I began to realize that I needed to ask myself a question: If we had the laws that we’re about to pass, in 2017, would the people at MSU who had been abused by Larry Nassar had had an avenue to just go through the normal process of the justice system and seek justice for what had been done to them? And if the answer is no, then the bills aren’t right,” Brixie said.

Brixie’s district includes Michigan State University and its students. As a mom and a witness to everything survivors have gone through since Nassar’s abuse came to light in 2016, she said this is a personal issue for her.

It’s personal for the survivors too, said Valerie von Frank, the mother of a Nassar survivor and founder of the Parents of Sister Survivors Engage (POSSE) group. 

I’m so tired of the lack of transparency and the games that are going on and the politics over something that’s such a fundamental human right: to have your body and your soul respected as a sexual assault victim. I just can’t stand it. You don’t play games with children’s lives like this.

– Valerie von Frank, the mother of a Nassar survivor and founder of the Parents of Sister Survivors Engage (POSSE)

Survivors and their families have witnessed a Republican majority, and now Democratic majority, take up dozens of bills concerning sexual violence policy they have asked for, passing some and leaving some behind.

And now she’d like to see where lawmakers really stand by holding a vote. 

“Let’s see before the [2024] election comes up, who’s going to vote against this package of bills, which is something that the survivors have asked for since 2018. Each party has blamed the other party and now there’s no more excuses,” von Frank said. 

If lawmakers don’t believe in holding perpetrators accountable, or don’t support solutions for victims of sexual assault who were minors at the time and took time to come to terms with what happened, they need to let people know where they stand, von Frank said.

“I’m so tired of the lack of transparency and the games that are going on and the politics over something that’s such a fundamental human right: to have your body and your soul respected as a sexual assault victim. I just can’t stand it,” von Frank said. “You don’t play games with children’s lives like this.” A member of ReclaimMSU put a sign in front of the MSU Hannah Administration Building that read “The Board does not care how you feel. No signs allowed upstairs.” before the Board of Trustees meeting on April 13, 2018. 

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.