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When it comes to criminal law, one of the oldest principles of fairness dictates that a person shouldn’t have the prospect of criminal charges or a trial hanging over their head indefinitely. Additionally, the longer that those charges or trials come after the incident, the worse the evidence becomes: memories fade, witnesses move or pass away, documents get lost, and physical evidence disappears or gets destroyed.
So, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, there are time limits placed on prosecutors, demanding that they file charges within a certain amount of time, or lose the ability to do so forever. So-called “statute of limitations” vary by jurisdiction and by crime. States can set different limits than the federal government, and more serious crimes tend to have longer charging windows. Here’s a look at criminal statutes of limitation, and how they work.
Most states apply a statute of limitations to every crime except murder, the charges for which can be brought at any time. The exact length of time tends to differ depending on the severity of the offense, and some states may base their statute of limitations laws on whether statutes classify the crime as a felony or a misdemeanor, and the assorted sub-classifications within each.
For instance, California has no limit on felonies punishable by death or life imprisonment and certain sex crimes, but requires prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges within one to four years. The Golden State further bases its statutes of limitations on the possible punishments by placing a six-year limit on offenses punishable by eight or more years in prison, and a three-year limit on any offense that could result in imprisonment.
And, as we noted, different states have different statutes of limitation. Illinois, for example, includes arson, forgery, treason, and child pornography on its list of crimes with no time limit to bring charges. The state also requires all misdemeanor charges within 18 months.
For federal offenses, most crimes carry a five-year statute of limitations on criminal legal proceedings, with a few exceptions:
Now that we know the limits, when does the proverbial clock start ticking? In most instances, it is when the crime occurs. In some cases, the statute of limitations may not begin until law enforcement discovers the crime or victims report it. This is because certain crimes, like fraud, child abuse, or sexual assault can either be difficult to detect right away or difficult for victims to report right away.
And once the clock starts ticking, can it pause, or be “tolled?” In certain circumstances, yes. To discourage fleeing from justice, most states will toll the criminal statute of limitations if the identity of the suspect is unknown or the defendant is out of the state or otherwise can’t be located. This is so criminals can’t avoid prosecution by hiding out for a few years.
Even with tolling, most states will still set a maximum amount of time to file charges. Florida’s maximum extension for their criminal statutes of limitation is three years; New York’s is five.
As mentioned, certain crimes have no statutes of limitation, like murder and other serious felonies. Some states also recognize the hurdles victims face when coming forward to report rape and sexual assault, and are likewise adding those crimes to the exempt list or extending the time prosecutors have to file those charges.
Because of the variance from state-to-state and crime-to-crime with regards to criminal statutes of limitation, contact a local criminal defense attorney if you’ve been charged with or are under investigation for a crime.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified criminal defense lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact an attorney in your area from our directory to discuss your specific legal situation.