Statutes of limitations were created to establish time limits for starting criminal proceedings. The purpose of these statutes is to proceed with prosecutions when the memories are fresh and when evidence and witnesses are still available.

The time period for the statutes of limitations starts on the date that the crimes were committed and if the applicable time limit expires before the criminal proceedings begin, the charges cannot be filed.

How Long are the Statutes of Limitations?

The time limits established can vary from state to state and it also depends on the seriousness of the crime. As a general rule, the more serious a crime, the more time that the state has to begin criminal proceedings.

There are also some crimes that do not have any time limitations and the suspect can be prosecuted and charged for the crime no matter how much time has gone by. Some crimes may unfold over days, months or even years and in these cases, prosecutors and defense attorneys may have disagreements about when the statute of limitations started to run.

Also, the statute of limitation is based on the time that a suspect remains in a state where the crime was committed and where the suspect has a fixed place of work or residence. For example, a state has a five year statute of limitations on burglary and James commits a burglary in that particular state.

After committing the burglary, James moves to another state for five years and then returns to the original state. The police arrest him for burglary a few months after he returns. The state’s five-year statute of limitations would not prevent his prosecution for burglary because the statute of limitations was not running during the five years that he was in a different state.

How are the Statute of Limitations Enforced?

Prosecutors charge cases where the statute of limitation has not expired. However, if a prosecutor decides to charge a “stale case”, it can still proceed through the courts. The defendant has the duty to figure out if the statute has expired and to raise this issue with the judge. Judges on their own do not review cases for any statute of limitations problems.

When the defendant claims that the statute of limitation has expired, they are raising an “affirmative defense” and they have to petition for dismissal of the case. However, it is necessary to raise this defense when the case is still pending and not after the case is settled.

For example, a defendant may plead guilty to a reduced charge and they may later learn that the statute of limitations had expired. But they cannot do anything about this now because by law the defendant waived the right to rely on the statute of limitations by not raising the defense when the case was still pending.

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How are Statute of Limitations Different from the Right to a Speedy Trial?

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.

A case may met the applicable statute of limitations but it can be dismissed if a prosecutor does not move it along and if the judge decides that the defendant’s right to a speedy trial was violated.

Who Establishes These Rules?

Each state has established detailed laws on which statute of limitation applies to the different types of criminal offenses. In the state of California for example, the statute of limitation is 6 years for offenses which are punishable by imprisonment for eight years or more (with some exceptions) while for other offenses which are punishable by imprisonment (again with some exceptions), it is 3 years.

However, when the statute starts to run, when it ends and whether it should be considered suspended will not be addressed in the statutes. These are issues that lawyers raise and that judges decide on a case-by-case basis.

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

The laws regarding statutes of limitations vary state by state and it also depends on the type of crime, how long ago it was committed and where it was committed. It is a defense raised by the defendant and it can be a complex issue where there are major disagreements between different sides.

It would be beneficial to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney regarding the issue of statutes of limitations before proceeding.