A statute of limitations is a law that creates a period of time in which a person can be legally charged with a crime. Different crimes fall under different statutes, but this prevents someone from being charged with a crime that allegedly took place over 50 years ago, depending on the type of crime.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

Found in the laws of ancient Rome, statutes of limitations are a basic part of the legal systems of the United States and the world. Prosecutors have always been limited in when and how they are able to bring cases against citizens, keeping the legal system in check.

This doesn't mean that you can get away with murder if you just stay under the radar for 20 years. More serious crimes have a much longer statute of limitations than minor offenses. For instance, an individual can only sue another party for breach of contract for so long, and eventually, the window of opportunity will close.

Civil and criminal cases both have statues of limitations, but they differ greatly. The specified time period for legal action begins with the discovery date or injury date depending on the offense. If a person is injured on the job, they have a certain window of time to sue their employer if they choose to do so; that period begins as soon as the accident happens.

As a Defense

The defendant in a legal action will typically use a statute of limitations as a primary defense to argue that a case was brought against them beyond a reasonable time period. This defense needs to be used during the beginning of the case when the defendant first answers the complaint of the plaintiff. If the statute of limitations is not brought up at that point, the defendant cannot try to use it later during the case.

Why Statute of Limitations?

Statutes of limitations are meant to protect the credibility of evidence. Most types of evidence deteriorate over time. Eyewitnesses remember things less clearly, DNA samples are less available, and documents are harder to find. Once the statute of limitations has run its course, the offender can no longer be brought to court and is therefore free.

Criminals are usually required to remain visible in some ways in order to be protected under a statute of limitations. The idea is that they are out in the open and able to be caught and prosecuted for their crime. If they are working in the public workforce and living in the state where they committed the crime, they are not hiding from the authorities. So, if they aren't tried for the crime during an ample period of time, the state loses its opportunity for justice.

Society operates under the belief that, if a criminal is out in the open for a specific period of time and the authorities don't catch them, then they deserve to be free from possible prosecution.

Criminals that flee the place of the crime, leaving the state or country, forego this protection under the statute. If they move back to the state, the period of time under the statute restarts. Say a crime is committed in New York in 1980, with a statute of limitations of 20 years. If the criminal leaves the state months after the crime, but then returns to New York in 2001, they are not considered free from prosecution. The statute wasn't running while they were out of state, so the clock starts when they reenter the state. This is called tolling the statute.

Crimes With No Statute

There are some crimes that are not covered by a statute of limitations. Offenders of the following crimes can be tried after any amount of time has passed since the illegal action:

  • Sexual offense including a minor
  • Arson
  • Violent crimes
  • Kidnappings
  • Forgery

Certain crimes have statutes in some states and not in others, for instance, treason has no statute in the state of Colorado.

Classification systems are used in most states to group felonies into certain categories regarding statutes of limitations and jail time. Class A felonies, usually including crimes like murder, which result in some kind of prison sentence have no statute of limitation. Misdemeanors, like trespassing and disorderly conduct, usually have a statute of about two years. Small claims, like patent infringement, usually have a statute of two to five years.

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