Crime Victim Rights: What You Need to Know

Female crime victim

Guide to the Law for Victims of Crime in the United States

If you or someone you know is a victim of a crime, or someone has threatened to harm you or otherwise commit a crime against you, you have the following rights in the U.S. But keep in mind that you may need to be proactive in exercising your rights as a victim.

Start here to report a crime in the United States. You may also need to contact and follow up with your local chief prosecutor, sometimes called the “District Attorney” (abbreviated “D.A.” or “DA”), or “State’s Attorney” or “Commonwealth’s Attorney,” or if it’s a federal crime, the local United States Attorney or “U.S. Attorney.” And you should maintain good records of the details of what happened, and (safely) collect and maintain any evidence of the crime, including communications such as phone records, emails, texts, etc.

You can find your local resources at the federal Office for Victims of Crimes.

In addition you may be able to sue the perpetrator in civil court, with the help of a personal injury lawyer.

Note: Call 911 if you are in immediate danger or if a life-threatening crime has just occurred

1. Right to Protection

Does law enforcement have a duty to investigate crime and protect victims?

Police have a responsibility to protect you from valid threats of crime, and investigate any valid reports of a crime. If they don’t, you may be able to sue the police or have the federal government prosecute the police for failing to do their duty, especially if due to discrimination. This is called “Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law.”1Title 18 of U.S. Code, Section 242

What if law enforcement is the perpetrator of abuse against me?

You have the right to protection against an official’s abuse of power in willfully depriving you of your rights or in willfully discriminating against you in terms of punishment. This includes any official, though usually law enforcement, and at any level of government – local, state, or federal. The U.S. Dept of Justice, through the Attorney General, has the responsibility to investigate officials’ alleged violations of this law.2Title 18 of U.S. Code, Section 242

See more on this at our pages Can the Government Do That? and Guide to Laws about Police Conduct.

What rights do I have to protection against identity theft?

You have the right to federal protection against identity theft.3U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 1028A

2. Victims’ Bill of Rights

If you are a victim of a crime under state or local law (which includes most crimes), your rights as a victim vary by state – see below for information on select states), but you will likely have most of the same rights listed here. If you are a victim of a crime under federal law or any crime committed in Washington, DC, you have the following rights:

  • Notice: To be notified that you have been the victim of a federal crime;
  • Information about services: To be informed of the place where you may receive medical and social services, counseling, treatment, and other support services;
  • Protection: To receive reasonable protection from a suspected offender and persons acting together with the suspected offender;
  • Status: To know the status of the investigation of the crime, to the extent it is appropriate and it will not interfere with the investigation;
  • Property: To have personal property being held for evidentiary purposes maintained in good condition and returned as soon as it is no longer needed for evidentiary purposes.

These rights come from the Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act (VRRA)434 U.S.C. § 20141

Also, if federal charges are filed involving images or material depicting the victim, victims (or a parent, guardian, or other appropriate alternate contact while victim is a minor) will have the following rights5Section 3771 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Crimes and Criminal Procedure

  • Notice. The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public court proceeding, or any parole proceeding, involving the crime, or if the accused has been released or has escaped
  • Attend hearings. The right not to be excluded from any such public court proceeding, unless the court determines that your testimony would be influenced by things you may hear at the proceeding
  • Right to be heard. The right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, or sentencing, or any parole proceeding
  • Confer with prosecution. The reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the government in the case
  • Compensation. The right to full and timely return of any property stolen or compensation for damaged property if the specific law requires
  • Speedy proceedings. The right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay
  • Respect. The right to be treated with fairness and with respect for your dignity and privacy.

See more at the FBI website.

Here are victims’ rights for state or local crimes in the following select states:

California, Connecticut, OregonTexas, Maryland, New Jersey, New York

3. Definition of Victim (for federal crimes)

A crime victim for federal purposes means a person who has been directly harmed (physically, emotionally, or financially) by another person committing a federal crime or any crime in Washington, DC. If a crime victim is under 18 years old, mentally incompetent, or deceased, the victim’s legal guardians, representatives, family members, or any other person appointed by the court may assume the victim’s rights, as long as that person is not a defendant in the crime being investigated or prosecuted. Foreign citizens may be considered victims in some cases.6Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act; 34 U.S> Code Sec 20141

4. Hate crimes

You have the right to protection against “hate crimes” where an attacker uses (or attempts to use) a deadly weapon and the attack was motivated by your actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.7U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 249

5. Potential to sue perpetrator

Often the victim of a crime may also be able to sue the alleged perpetrator in civil court (as opposed to criminal court) and possibly get monetary compensation from the perpetrator. See our Guide to Civil vs Criminal Laws, and talk to a personal injury attorney for assistance.

6. Deadlines for prosecuting assailant

Though it varies by state and by type of crime, there are usually deadlines for prosecuting a person for committing a crime. These deadlines are called the “statute of limitations.” For example, in California, assault or battery must be prosecuted within 1-2 years or the assailant will essentially get away with it. Here are the deadlines for prosecuting sex crimes in every state. Murder is one of the few crimes which never has a deadline for prosecuting.

7. Citizens arrest

Can I make a citizen’s arrest?

It is legal for any person in the U.S. (whether citizen or not) to arrest or detain another person in certain circumstances. Laws vary by state, but most states allow for a citizen’s arrest if they have seen someone commit a serious crime. Other states allow a person to place someone in detention even if they didn’t see the crime committed, but has good reason to believe that the suspect did it.

For example, in California, any person (not just citizens) may make a citizen’s arrest in any of the following situations:8California Penal Code Sec 837

  1. A “public offense” committed or attempted in your presence.
  2. When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in your presence.
  3. When a felony has been in fact committed, and you have reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it.

But keep in mind that it is risky to get involved in such an arrest. The suspect will likely not submit willingly, and could subject you to violence. Also, if you are wrong and the suspect did not commit a crime, you could be sued or arrested for false arrest or false imprisonment.

Can I use force in making a citizen’s arrest?

In general, it is legal to use non-deadly force to carry out a valid citizen’s arrest if you reasonably believe that: (1) the suspect is committing a felony, or a misdemeanor amounting to a breach of the peace; and (2) the force used is necessary to prevent further commission of the offense and to apprehend the offender.

Exercise Your Rights

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