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Sexual Assault in the Military: Exploring Your Legal Options

By February 26, 2019January 29th, 2020Blog
sexual assault in the military
This post was written before the passage of AB-218. For information regarding the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit for childhood sexual assault/abuse, click here or contact our team of experienced representatives.


According to the Department of Defense’s 2018 report on Sexual Assault in the Military, the reporting of sexual assault in the military has increased by 10 percent in one year’s time. The Department of Defense encourages reporting of sexual assaults so that military men and women can be connected with restorative care, and perpetrators can be held appropriately responsible for violating the military code of ethics and the law.

In this article, you’ll learn the differences between military, criminal, and civil court; the statute of limitations for pressing charges; the benefits of civil litigation; and where to seek help.

Should Your Case Be Fought in Military, Criminal, or Civil Court?

When it comes sexual assault in the military, a survivor can have their case heard in either military court, criminal court, civil court, or all three.

Military Court

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is the legal framework that governs all branches of the United States military and is enforced in military court cases. According to UCMJ Article 120, a service member of the U.S. military who rapes, sexually assaults, or physically abuses or threatens to abuse another person with sexual contact, groping or unwanted sexual advances will likely face prison time with sentences ranging from seven years to life; dishonorable discharge and the decimation of character and reputation, both inside and outside the military; and loss of health care benefits, military pension, and pay. A service member who faces trial in military court can also face trial in civilian criminal court for the same incident, even if he or she were acquitted in either court. This is due to the doctrine of separate, or dual, sovereigns.

Criminal Court

After filing a local police report, the officers in charge of your investigation will forward the paperwork to the district attorney if there are sufficient grounds for arrest. The end goal is to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused, in light of state laws—and, if found guilty, to set an appropriate punishment. The perpetrator would likely serve time in jail, be required to pay fines to the state, be placed on probation, and have their name placed on a sex offender registry.   

Civil Court

In civil court, the chief objective is to obtain financial compensation to cover personal losses related to past, present, and future medical expenses—including the cost of therapy and substance abuse rehabilitation; loss of employment or reduced capacity to work; emotional pain and suffering; loss of enjoyment in life; relocation expenses; and punitive damages. It is worth noting that the standard of evidence is lower in civil court than in criminal or military court. This means that an attorney needs only to prove the events were “51% or more likely to have occurred,” rather than proving the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

What Are the Statute of Limitations for Sexual Assault in the Military?

The statute of limitations is a deadline for pressing criminal charges or filing a civil lawsuit seeking compensation. It’s important to keep in mind that criminal and civil proceedings are treated differently by law and different timelines apply. If you are pursuing litigation for an incident of sexual assault in the military, the statute of limitations are as follows:

  • Military court: In February 2018, the military’s highest court ruled that there would be a five-year statute of limitations. Previously, there was no statute of limitations. Technically, anyone facing a rape allegation from the fall of 1986 through the fall of 2006 could have been sentenced to death under military criteria, though there were no capital sentences during that time.  
  • Criminal Court: If you wish to press criminal charges in California, you have 10 years from the date of the most recent assault if you were assaulted prior to January 1, 2017. If you were assaulted within the last two years, the passage of SB 813 ending the 10-year criminal statute of limitations on rape, forcible sodomy, and child molestation gives you an unlimited window to press criminal charges.
  • Civil court: On September 29th, 2018, the California State Assembly passed AB 1619, extending the civil statute of limitations for sexual assault of an adult from two years to 10 years from the date of the most recent assault.

Benefits of Seeking Civil Litigation for Sexual Assault in the Military

Even if the statute of limitations has run out in your case, there’s still hope in civil court. Of the sexually assaulted service members each year, very few report it while serving active duty, due to lack of confidence in the system, embarrassment, or fears of retaliation. Years later, you may have no choice but to seek help if you are experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety, insomnia, sexual discomfort, PTSD, strange aversions, and other latent effects. An experienced attorney can build a civil case to prove you needed more than the 10-year deadline to file your particular complaint.

California law allows for delayed discovery. This means plaintiffs can file suit within three years from the date they discover or reasonably should have discovered that an injury or illness resulted from an act, attempted act, or assault. Seeking financial compensation through the civil court system can help pay for the necessary therapy, rehabilitation, and medication if necessary.

Another benefit to having your case fought in civil court is that liability may extend to third parties beyond the perpetrator. Not only is the perpetrator held responsible for the assault, but you can also sue leaders up the chain of command who failed to follow military protocol to maintain a safe work environment, conduct climate assessments, report sexual assault, or provide sexual assault awareness and prevention training.

How California Sexual Assault Attorneys Can Help

Incidents of sexual assault in the military should not be ignored. Large organizations may try to silence survivors or turn a blind eye to sexual assault but a passionate attorney won’t stop fighting until justice is served. If you’ve decided to pursue litigation, an experienced legal representative can act as your advocate, providing counsel and empowering control over the course of the proceedings.

If you’re looking for a reputable sexual assault attorney in California, look no further than the distinguished San Francisco Law Firm of Lewis & Llewellyn. Our team is passionate about helping victims of sexual assault. Contact our team online for support and guidance to see you through this emotional time, or call +1 (415) 800-0590 to schedule an appointment with an advocate today.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this blog or on this website should be construed as legal advice from Lewis & Llewellyn LLP. Neither your receipt of information from this website, nor your use of this website to contact Lewis & Llewellyn LLP creates an attorney-client relationship between you and the firm or any of its lawyers. No reader of this website should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this website without seeking the appropriate legal advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s jurisdiction.