A statute of limitations is a type of law that sets a time period for how long a person has to bring a legal action on a particular matter.
In general, statutes of limitations apply to both civil and criminal actions. Their use will differ based on the type of case it is (e.g., civil versus criminal), and their rules can vary depending on what the laws of a certain jurisdiction provide. For instance, a statute in one state may give a person more time to file a lawsuit than a statute in another state for the same legal issue.
As for criminal statutes of limitations specifically, they were created to establish time limits solely for criminal proceedings. The reason behind the criminal type of these rules is so that prosecutions can take place when memories are still fresh, and while evidence and witnesses are still available.
The time period for criminal statutes of limitations will typically begin on the date that the crime was committed. If this time limit passes or expires before criminal proceedings are initiated, then the charges cannot be filed and the defendant can request to have them dismissed.
How Long are the Statutes of Limitations?
As discussed above, the established time limits can vary from state to state and may depend on the seriousness of the crime. The general rule of thumb is that the more serious a crime, the more time that the state has to begin criminal proceedings.
In addition, there are some crimes that do not have any time limitations. As such, a suspect can be charged and prosecuted for the crime no matter how much time has passed. Also, some crimes may take many days, months, or even years to unfold like conspiracy. In these cases, prosecutors and defense attorneys often disagree about exactly when the statute of limitations started to run.
The statute of limitations may also be based on the time that the suspect remains in a state where the crime was committed, and/or where the suspect has a fixed place of work or residence.
For example, imagine that a particular state has a five year statute of limitations for the crime of burglary and the defendant commits a burglary in that state. After committing the burglary, the defendant decides to move to another state for five years. Eventually, the defendant returns to the original state where the police then arrest them for burglary a few months later.
In such a scenario, the state’s five year statute of limitations will not prevent the defendant from being prosecuted for burglary. This is because the time period was not counting down during the five years that they were in a different state.
How are the Statute of Limitations Enforced?
Generally speaking, a prosecutor usually files a case before the statute of limitations has expired. However, if a prosecutor decides to bring a case that is based on a “stale” or lapsed charge, then it may still proceed in court.
After they file, it will be up to the defendant to figure out whether or not the statute of limitations has expired, and if so, to raise the issue with the judge. Judges typically will not review cases on their own accord for issues regarding statutes of limitations.
When a defendant claims that the statute of limitation has expired, they are raising what is known as an “affirmative defense.” If the defendant believes they are entitled to this defense, then they will have to petition for dismissal of the case. It should be noted that the defendant must raise this kind of defense while the case is still pending, not after the case is settled.
For example, the defendant may plead guilty in order to receive a reduced charge, only to learn later on that the statute of limitations had expired. If they have already pled guilty and the case is closed or settled, they will not be able to do anything about this expiration date.
The reason as to why this is the case is because the defendant, by law, has already waived the right to rely on the statute of limitations by not raising the defense when the case was still pending.
How are Statutes of Limitations Different from the Right to a Speedy Trial?
Criminal statutes of limitations establish time limits for starting criminal proceedings. This is different from the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, which is about the length of time between the beginning of criminal proceedings and the cases going to trial.
For instance, a case may meet the requirements for the statute of limitations period, but a judge can dismiss the case if a prosecutor fails to move the case along and the judge decides that the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated due to the prosecutor’s delay.
Who Establishes These Rules?
Every state has established detailed laws on what statute of limitations period applies to the numerous types of criminal offenses.
In the state of California for example, crimes that are punishable by imprisonment for eight years or longer (with some exceptions) receive a statute of limitations period of 6 years. On the other hand, crimes that receive a lower prison sentence can only be brought within a 3 year period.
Lastly, it is important to note that when the statutory period starts to run, when it ends, and whether it should be considered suspended, are not issues that will be addressed in these statutes. Instead, these are the kinds of issues that lawyers have to raise and that a judge must determine on a case-by-case basis.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Criminal Statutes of Limitations Issues?
As discussed above, the time period for criminal statutes of limitations can vary from state to state. This time frame may also depend on the type of crime, how long ago the crime was committed, and where it was committed. Having to address all of these factors can be confusing on its own, but they can become even more complicated when both sides to a case have a major disagreement over them.
Thus, if you are facing issues involving a criminal statute of limitations, then it may be in your best interest to contact a local criminal defense attorney for further assistance.
An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to explain the relevant laws in your state and can determine whether you can raise a statute of limitations defense. Your attorney can also provide representation in court if necessary.