Occasionally you might hear in the news where an individual got away with a crime because something called the “statute of limitations” had expired. Among layman, and even some lawyers, there is a disagreement about when the statute of limitations for a certain class of crime starts, goes on hold and ends. If you are accused of a crime, the best advice is to engage the services of a knowledgeable attorney who can advise you if, and how, the statute of limitations may apply in your particular circumstance.
Statutes of limitation provide guidelines for starting criminal proceedings. The policies surrounding statutes of limitations show society’s wish to get on with prosecutions while individual memories are still good and before witnesses die or move away. Typically the clock starts to run on statute of limitations on the day that the crime is committed. If the time limit runs down before the accused is charged, indictments should not be brought. It is up to the defendant though, to point out to the prosecutor and court when it’s suspected that the statute in question has expired.
Standard Statute of Limitations
The time limit on a particular crime will vary from state to state as well as the seriousness of the crime. Generally, the greater, or more serious, the crime, the more time a state has before having to begin prosecution. Here are a few time limits as laid out in the “Moral Penal Code” and is similar to those followed in many states:
- Murder No limit
- Serious Felony Six years
- Misdemeanor Two years
- Petty Misdemeanor Six months
States are not allowed to backdate, or retroactively, change the rules to allow for prosecution of crimes that have already passed the pertinent statute of limitations. For example, if a person committed a serious felony in 2007 and their involvement isn’t discovered until 2014, they cannot be prosecuted. The statute of limitations “clock” started running in 2007 and not in 2013. The state legislation may change the law on the statute of limitations, but that change cannot be retroactively applied to the sample case.
When the Clock Starts and Stops
When a crime lasts over a period of days, months or years, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys often have different ideas about when the clock started to run. Additionally, the clock is ticking only during the time that the suspect remains in the state. If the suspect leaves the state, then the statute is said to be “tolled,” or on hold. When, and if, the suspect returns to the state, then the clock starts moving forward again.
Laws are Changing
Many states are changing the law. For example, some states allow for prosecution of sex related charges to be brought within one year that DNA evidence establishes the identity of the suspect. In cases involving criminal acts against minors, most states don’t start the clock on the statute of limitations until the victim turns 18.
If a prosecutor charges a case that has passed the statute of limitations, it can still make its rounds through the courts. It is up to the defendant to point out to the courts and raise the issue to the judge. Defendants have to petition the court for dismissal based on a violation of the statute of limitations, and it needs to be done as the case is pending. If a defendant waits until the trial has begun, the defendant is considered to have waived their rights and the trial will continue.
Right to a Speedy Trial
Statutes of limitations are different from the right to a speedy trial as guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment. While statutes of limitation apply to the time period beginning with the commission of a crime until prosecution begins, the “speedy trial” right doesn’t start until the prosecution brings the case. If the prosecution starts the court proceeds and fails to move the trial along, a judge could decide that the defendant’s rights were violated.
The laws vary greatly state by state; any time limit for bringing an action will depend on the rules of the state where the crime was committed. As with any criminal case, it is best to consult an experienced attorney as early in the process as practicable.