A criminal statute of limitations is a law which forbids prosecutors from charging someone with a crime that was committed more than a specified number of years ago. The general purpose of these laws is to ensure that convictions occur only upon evidence that has not deteriorated with time. After the period of the statute has run, the accused is essentially free, although there are no time limits for murder charges.
Each states establishes its own criminal statute of limitations, usually with different limits for different kinds of crimes on the basis of their general classification as either felonies or misdemeanors. The time limit starts to run on the date the offense was committed, not from the time the crime was discovered or the accused was identified.
How the Accused Can Benefit From the Statute of Limitations
Again, if the time limit runs out, the prosecutor can't charge the accused with the crime. But how does that work exactly?
Statutes of limitation generally require an accused person to be:
- In the state where the crime was committed;
- Gainfully employed; and
- Visible (not living in hiding or under an assumed identity)
Why? Because it implies the person remained "catchable." If the authorities fail to discover the accused living in the open within a specified amount of time, society has determined that at that point the accused should be able to live free from the possibility of prosecution.
This notion may have born out of a sense of mercy more than pragmatics. If the accused is a fugitive -- living out of the state in which the crime was committed or otherwise living in hiding -- this tolls, or suspends, the statute. (Once the accused reenters the state the statute resumes running). However, if the accused were living an open, public, so-called "reformed" life, after a reasonable period of time he is allowed to be free from capture.
Crimes Without a Time Limit
Not all crimes are governed by statutes of limitation. For example, murder has none. Additionally, sex offenses with minors, crimes of violence, kidnapping, arson, and forgery have no statutes of limitation in a number of states. In Arizona and California, crimes involving public money or public records have no statutes of limitation.
Criminal Statute of Limitations and Federal Crimes
Remember, statutes of limitations are divided into federal and state categories. Federal statutes are only applicable to federal crimes, typically those which take place on federal property or otherwise fall under federal jurisdiction. For example, mail fraud and burglarizing or vandalizing a federally owned property can be considered a federal crime. Likewise, committing a crime in a national park would fall under federal jurisdiction.
A Final Word
State criminal statute of limitation laws are constantly changing -- contact a criminal defense attorney in your area or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
Research the Law:
District of Columbia Criminal Statute of Limitations Laws: Related Resources
Get Immediate Help From a Criminal Defense Attorney
The state cannot just prosecute you at any time; the statute of limitation laws exists to prevent that from happening. If you are confused by how this works, and need to know how it relates to your case, then you should talk to an experienced attorney right away. Begin the process by getting in touch with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your state. Then you can understand the best way to proceed with your case.