Wrongfully Accused of Child Abuse from Decades Ago? Where Do You Go from Here?

Wrongfully Accused

Have you found yourself accused of misconduct with a child that allegedly occurred in the 2000’s, 90’s, or even earlier? Trying to remember what happened and to defend yourself against allegations that happened 10, 20, or even 30 years ago can feel overwhelming. In North Carolina, people are often charged with conduct ranging from Indecent Liberties with a Minor to Statutory or First Degree Rape for alleged acts from decades past. Let’s break down the law surrounding these charges and what you can do when you find yourself charged.

Can I be Charged with Allegations from Long Ago?

Normally, the timing of charges and whether or not they can be filed is found in the law commonly called the statute of limitations. The timing of how long the prosecutor has to pursue charges for an incident varies from state to state. North Carolina’s statute of limitations is found in N.C.G.S. § 15-1. That statute requires that misdemeanors be charged within two years of their commission, however there is NO corresponding statute for felonies. That makes North Carolina one of only a small handful of states that allows felonies to be filed at any point in time after their alleged commission, even dozens of years later.

Prosecutions for Decades Old Sex Offenses are Common in North Carolina

In 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld convictions for taking indecent liberties with a child and felony child abuse based on sexual conduct a man inflicted on his daughter between 1990 and 1993, more than 25 years before he was charged with those crimes. See State v. Alonzo, 373 N.C. 437 (2020). The daughter did not report the abuse to the Sheriff until reaching the age of 18 in 2012, and law enforcement ultimately informed her that there is no statute of limitations for felonies in North Carolina. State v. Alonzo, 261 N.C. App 51, 52 (2018). Similarly, the court of appeals in State v. Jones, 231 N.C. App. 433 (2013), upheld the conviction of a man accused of abusing his stepdaughter and two nieces from 1975 to 1981, which was reported to police in 2008. There are many examples of these convictions for older sexual and abuse related crimes being upheld by North Carolina courts.

Are there any Limitations against Bringing Charges for Crimes Long Past?

The Supreme Court has stated that a constitutional inquiry based upon the government’s delay in charging a crime must consider the reasons for the delay as well as the prejudice to the accused. The North Carolina Supreme Court summed up the test this way: “Essentially a preaccusation delay violates due process only if the defendant can show that the delay actually prejudiced the conduct of his defense and that it was unreasonable, unjustified, and engaged in by the prosecution deliberately and unnecessarily in order to gain tactical advantage over the defendant.” State v. McCoy, 383 N.C. 1, 7-8 (1981). In these cases, it is nearly always the accuser who engages in delay reporting the conduct rather than the prosecutor delaying proceeding forward with those allegations. Therefore the only limitations on bringing these charges occurs when the prosecutor is aware of the misconduct, but waits for tactical reasons to act upon it in court.

I am Being Investigated for These Offenses, What Should I Do?

If you have received a call from the police asking about sexual misconduct from long ago and you have not been formally charged with any crime, you need to refuse to answer questions and speak with a lawyer immediately. Police will often approach these cases very informally in spite of their seriousness, and they may use recorded phone calls or try to engage in what appears to be an informal discussion with a potential suspect. The police are never attempting to clear a person of wrongdoing in these situations, but instead they are looking for two things: admissions to any misconduct, and information that corroborates their alleged victim’s stories.

Any admission made to police during these discussions can be used against you, and since you are not charged with a crime or in police custody during these discussions, your Miranda rights do not apply. Anything said to the police under those conditions will be admissible in a court of law. So it is important not to make any concessions to the officers you speak to.

Additionally, you may think that being helpful and providing basic information may help your case. Unfortunately, even small details can be twisted against you. For instance, the police may have a timeline already mapped out of when, where, and how these acts occurred decades ago before even speaking to you. Any information they can glean about your whereabouts during that timeframe, your access to the alleged victim, or any minute details that you mention that make your accuser look more credible will be of value to them.

It would be in your best interest not to speak with law enforcement. Your best bet, whether you have yet to be charged or you have already been formally charged, is to pick up the phone and speak with one of our experienced attorneys today!