Stephen Collins sex abuse allegations: Secret recordings and the law

Four4Four: Stephen Collins accused of exposing self to children and more


As confessions go, it is persuasive and damning. Listen to the tape. The admission is stunning.

If it is the voice of actor Stephen Collins, admitting on a secret tape recording to molesting 3 young girls in both California and New York, he is in serious criminal jeopardy in both jurisdictions. But there are copious legal obstacles for prosecutors if they decide to charge the star of the hit television series, “7th Heaven” who, ironically, portrayed a moralizing pastor who counsels children. One season was devoted to teaching young people to abstain from pre-marital sex. 

Yup, that’s irony.

Collins is already in court battling his estranged wife, actress Faye Grant, in an nasty divorce case. The court of public opinion can be equally ugly. Reportedly, Collins has been canned from an upcoming film role and has resigned from the National Board of the Screen Actors Guild. His future in front of a camera may depend on whether he ends up behind bars. So what will happen?


Let’s begin with the voice heard on the tape. Authenticating it should be easy. There would have been two witnesses present at the time of his alleged confession during a visit to a therapist. Either one or both of those individuals could verify it was Collins who was speaking.

Normally, there is a sacrosanct privilege which protects conversations between therapists and patients, although it is waived if a third party attends. It is unclear if the presence of Collins’s wife constitutes a third party. But it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t the therapist who breached the privilege. It was the actor’s wife. She can do so, even if she was a participant in couples counseling.

Moreover, there is no therapist-patient privilege that protects what is heard on the tape-recording. Both New York and California have strict laws that impose an affirmative duty on therapists to report to authorities any evidence of child abuse. Therapists must also report any patient who might pose a danger to others, including children. So, forget any principles of confidentiality.

But is the tape itself admissible evidence in a court of law? The recording reportedly occurred in California which is regarded as an “all party” state. That means, under law, all parties to the conversation must have knowledge of the recording and give consent in advance. Collins did not. However, there is a critical caveat: if Collins was thought to be involved in criminal activity, the conversation can be recorded without consent in order to collect evidence of the suspected crime. That scenario would seem to apply here. Thus, the tape is admissible in a California courtroom.

What about a New York courtroom? Likely admissible, as well. New York is a “one party” state, which means a person can record his or her own conversations without the knowledge or consent of the other party. Clearly, Collins’ wife knew what she was doing. Indeed, she had been advised by her lawyer to do it.

But the next legal issue is precarious: can Collins be prosecuted for something he allegedly did many years ago? Perhaps decades ago. This is where the statute of limitations comes into play. The timing can be tricky. Also, the exact nature of the suspected abuse can dictate whether the time limitation has lapsed.

In New York, the statute of limitations does not begin until a victim reaches the age of 18 or reports the crime to law enforcement, whichever occurs first. That is when the clock begins ticking. Prosecutors have 5 years within which to bring charges for first and second degree sexual conduct against a child, but only 2 years for sexual misconduct, forcible touching and sexual abuse. At this point, we don’t know the precise timing of events or what kind of abuse may have happened to the girls. If too much time has elapsed, the statute of limitations will have “run” and no prosecution can be had.

But what if Collins was living continuously in California or elsewhere, not New York, during long stretches of time after the alleged offense? If so, New York’s statute of limitations is “tolled” or halted, but only for a maximum of 5 years. Thus, much will depend on the actors’ whereabouts. Since Collins is believed to have sold his Manhattan home in 1997, his residency is unclear.

In California, prosecution would be easier. There is a 10 year statute of limitations for child molestation, but the crime can also be prosecuted within one year of whenever a victim notifies police. So, in truth, there is no 10 year limit. Other sexual assault crimes against children carry a 6 year limit, with a similar suspension of the statute of limitations during the time the victim is a minor. Again, timing will be critical.

Any potential prosecution of Collins will depend on a multitude of factors: where he was living, when the alleged abuse occurred, the relative ages of any victims, and the nature of the purported abuse. As police collect evidence and talk with suspected victims, the clarity of any prosecution will come into focus.

But make no mistake: in the end, it may be the voice of the actor which incriminates him. All you have to do, is listen to the tape.

Gregg Jarrett joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2002 and is based in New York. He currently serves as legal analyst and offers commentary across both FNC and FOX Business Network (FBN).