Statute of limitations is a time limit. It's an idea that charges must be filed against a suspect within a certain amount of time from the date the crime happened. The reason is to protect individuals from being continually harassed, sparing them from having to defend against old charges when memories have faded or evidence is no longer available.
Statute of limitations are divided into federal and state categories.
Federal statutes are only applicable to federal crimes. Typically, those are crimes which violate a congressionally mandated law or take place on federal property. Mail fraud and burglarizing or vandalizing a federally owned property are examples of what can be considered a federal crime.
Each type of federal crime has it's own type of statute of limitations however there is no statute of limitations for federal crimes punishable by death. Certain federal terrorism crimes do not have a statute of limitations either. Otherwise, prosecution for other federal crimes must begin within 5 years from the time the offense was committed. There are a few exceptions, such as arson, art theft, particular crimes against financial institutions and various immigration offenses which all carry statutes of limitations longer than the five-year norm.
No matter the applicable statute of limitations, the time period can be extended because of certain circumstances. For example, when the accused is a fugitive or the case involves charges of wartime fraud against the government, the statute of limitations can be lengthened.
Examples of federal crimes that receive extended statutes of limitations:
- 20 years for major theft of art work
- 10 years for arson, certain crimes against financial institutions and immigration offenses
- 8 years for non-violent violations of the terrorism-associated statutes
Each state has separate laws and varying time lines for their statutes. For many states, the statute of limitations for felony cases is indefinite compared to a misdemeanor where limitations vary. Severe and violent crimes, like murder, can be prosecuted half a century later in many states.
There are four states that have not established a legal set of statute limitations for any crimes. This allows those states to prosecute a charge at any time after it was committed. The states without statues of limitations:
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Examples of variations by state:
- In Alaska, there is no limitation for murders. It's 10 years for certain felonies. It's five years for misdemeanors.
- In California, offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment do not have a statute of limitations. Felony offenses punishable by eight or more years in prison have a limitation of six years. Misdemeanor violations committed on a minor under the age of 14 has a time limit of three years.
- In New York, there is no limitation for Class A felony murder. Tax law misdemeanors are three years, general misdemeanors are usually two years, petty offenses are one year.