Sexual assault is a grave violation of an individual’s rights and dignity. In California, sexual assault is defined as any unwanted sexual contact or behavior, including but not limited to, touching of intimate body parts without consent, rape, and sexual coercion. 

In California, as in many other jurisdictions, cases of sexual assault can be pursued through both civil and criminal legal channels. Understanding the differences between these two types of cases is crucial for victims and their families seeking justice and closure. In this article, we will delve into the distinctions between civil vs criminal sexual assault cases, the legal processes involved, and what victims need to know about their options.

Definition of Sexual Assault in California

Under California law (California Penal Code Section 261), sexual assault encompasses a wide range of non-consensual sexual acts. It is a crime that can result in severe penalties for the perpetrator, including imprisonment and registration as a sex offender.

Civil vs. Criminal Sexual Assault Cases

It’s important to note that victims of sexual assault have the right to pursue both criminal and civil cases simultaneously or separately. These cases can also have different outcomes and timelines, as the legal standards and objectives vary between criminal and civil proceedings. Ultimately, the decision to pursue either or both types of cases depends on the individual victim’s goals, needs, and circumstances.

The Purpose of Civil vs. Criminal Sexual Assault Cases

In California, there are significant differences between civil vs criminal sexual assault cases, each serving distinct purposes within the legal system. Criminal cases focus primarily on establishing the guilt or innocence of the accused and imposing criminal penalties, such as imprisonment, fines, and probation. In contrast, civil cases focus on addressing the harm suffered by the victim and seeking financial compensation for damages, including medical expenses, therapy costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Civil Cases

In civil cases, the victim sues the perpetrator for monetary damages resulting from the assault. The primary goal is to obtain compensation for physical, emotional, and financial harm caused by the assault. Civil cases do not result in criminal penalties like incarceration but can provide financial restitution to the victim.

Criminal Cases

Criminal cases are brought by the state or government against the perpetrator. The objective is to punish the offender for violating criminal laws and to protect society from further harm. If convicted, the perpetrator may face imprisonment, fines, probation, and mandatory counseling or treatment.

The Legal Process of Civil vs. Criminal Sexual Assault Cases

Civil vs criminal sexual assault cases serve different purposes within the legal system. A criminal case is brought by the state or government against the perpetrator, with the aim of punishing the offender for violating the law. A civil case is filed by the victim (plaintiff), or their representative, against the perpetrator (defendant) or other responsible parties, seeking compensation for damages suffered as a result of the assault.

Civil Case Process

A civil case only takes place if the victim or their representative decides to file a lawsuit seeking damages for what they have been through. The case proceeds through court hearings, evidence presentation, and possible settlement negotiations. The burden of proof is lower in civil cases, requiring only a preponderance of evidence (more likely than not) that the assault occurred.

Criminal Case Process

In a criminal case, law enforcement investigates the assault, and if there is sufficient evidence, the district attorney may file criminal charges against the perpetrator. The case then proceeds to trial. In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a high standard designed to protect the rights of the accused. 

The Statute of Limitations for Civil vs. Criminal Sexual Assault Cases

It’s important to note the statute of limitations for both civil vs criminal sexual assault cases in California. The statute of limitations refers to the time limit within which a case must be filed after the alleged incident occurred.

Civil Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit for sexual assault in California is generally within ten years from the date of the assault (California Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1). However, recent legal changes have extended the time frame for filing civil claims. The sexual assault statute of limitations can also vary depending on when the assault occurred and where the claim is being filed. 

Recently, Assembly Bill 1619, enacted in California, has expanded the sexual assault statute of limitations for survivors of sexual assault. Under this law, survivors now have until age 40 or within five years of discovering trauma-related psychological injuries to file a civil claim, regardless of when the assault occurred. 

Criminal Statute of Limitations

The criminal statute of limitations for sexual assault varies depending on the severity of the offense. For felony sexual assault crimes, there is no statute of limitations, meaning charges can be filed at any time after the assault. For misdemeanor sexual assault crimes, the statute of limitations is typically within one year.

California law (Penal Code section 801.1) allows for prosecution to commence at any time if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense. For adult victims, there is generally a 10-year statute of limitations, but this can vary based on the specific circumstances of the case.

It’s important to note that regardless of how much time has passed since the assault, victims are encouraged to come forward and seek legal assistance.

The Benefits of Filing a Civil Sexual Assualt Claim

Filing a civil sexual assault claim can offer numerous benefits to victims, providing a pathway toward healing, empowerment, and justice. 

Financial Compensation

Compensation can cover expenses such as medical bills, therapy costs, lost wages due to trauma-related difficulties, and other tangible losses. For many survivors, this financial support can make a substantial difference in their ability to access necessary care and resources for recovery.

Validation of Experience

Beyond financial compensation, filing a civil claim can also provide a sense of validation and acknowledgment of the trauma experienced. It allows survivors to have their voices heard in a formal legal setting, where their experiences are recognized and taken seriously. This validation can be incredibly empowering, helping survivors reclaim a sense of agency and control over their lives after such a traumatic event.

Justice and Accountability

Moreover, civil sexual assault claims can contribute to holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. By taking legal action, survivors send a powerful message that sexual violence will not be tolerated or overlooked. This accountability can extend beyond individual cases, helping to create a safer environment for everyone by raising awareness about sexual assault and promoting cultural shifts towards zero tolerance for such violence.

Systemic Change

Importantly, civil sexual assault claims can also contribute to systemic change and advocacy efforts. They shine a spotlight on issues of sexual violence, helping to challenge societal norms and attitudes that perpetuate such harm. Through legal action and advocacy, survivors and their allies can work towards creating a more just and compassionate society where sexual assault is not tolerated, and survivors are supported and empowered.

Contact Us

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse in California, it’s crucial to know that you are not alone and that there are resources and legal avenues available to seek justice. We encourage you to reach out to the Silva Law Firm for compassionate and experienced legal representation. Our team is dedicated to advocating for victims of sexual assault and helping them navigate the complexities of civil and criminal cases.

Don’t let the passage of time deter you from coming forward. Regardless of how much time has passed since the assault, it’s never too late to seek justice and healing. The Silva Law Firm is here to support you every step of the way. Our compassionate legal team can provide guidance, advocacy, and representation to help you navigate the legal process and seek justice. Contact us to schedule a case consultation.

Questions about a sexual assault claim? Talk to Cassidy About Your Case Or, call our office 24/7 at 209-600-4389