Criminal investigations can seem endless – especially when you’re the defendant. However, there are actually hard time limits on the prosecution of most federal crimes. These times limits are known as “statutes of limitations,” and can vary dramatically from one offense to the next. In this article, our attorneys will explain why the statute of limitations exists, how it changes from crime to crime, and some of the time differences when it comes to prosecuting defendants for state versus federal offenses.
The statute of limitations is an incredibly important legal concept which is relevant to both civil and criminal law. In a civil context, the statute of limitations restricts the time in which plaintiffs may file a claim, such as a personal injury claim arising from police brutality. To give an example, if a plaintiff is injured in a car accident and wants to file a lawsuit against the other driver, he or she must do so within a certain period of time – generally two to six years, beginning from the date the death occurred or the injury was sustained.
When it comes to prosecuting misdemeanors and felonies, the statute of limitations works a little differently. In the context of criminal law, the statute of limitations restricts the amount of time in which prosecutors may file charges against a suspect.
If the statute of limitations runs out or “expires,” the prosecutor may no longer charge the defendant – at least in theory. In instances where a prosecutor attempts to charge a “stale” case, meaning the pertinent statute has already expired, the onus falls on the defense to raise the issue with the court. It is not the judge’s responsibility to scrutinize cases for issues related to the statute of limitations. A skilled criminal defense lawyer will take care to protect his or her client against these types of prosecutorial violations.
There’s a good reason for the statute of limitations to exist – namely, it protects defendants against a lifetime of fear and harassment. However, certain crimes are considered so serious that they are not subject to any statute of limitations at all.
Moreover, there are often significant differences between the various statutes of limitations for state crimes (violations of a state’s criminal statutes) and federal crimes (crimes against the U.S. government, crimes committed on federal property, or crimes which violate federal laws). Let’s take a closer look at some of the statutes of limitations for federal crimes.
In most cases, federal crimes are subject to a five-year statute of limitations. This five-year time limit is provided by 18 U.S. Code § 3282(a), which states the following:
“Except as otherwise expressly provided by law, no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any [non-capital] offense… unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within five years next after such offense shall have been committed.”
From the short except above, you can already see one major exception to this rule: capital crimes, or crimes which are subject to capital punishment (i.e. the death penalty), such as aggravated murder. Federal capital crimes do not have a statute of limitations. Other federal crimes which do not have a time limit include sex crimes against minors or children, such as child pornography and online solicitation (see 18 U.S. Code § 3283), and acts of terrorism resulting in (or even “creat[ing] a forseeable risk of”) death or serious physical injury (see 18 U.S. Code § 3286).
Therefore – at least theoretically speaking – a federal prosecutor could charge a 75-year-old defendant with a capital crime, a sex crime against a minor, or violent terrorism crime he allegedly committed at age 25, provided the prosecutor had enough evidence to build a case. Of course, since evidence tends to deteriorate or disappear over time, it is not always possible to successfully prosecute very old cases or cold cases.
Other exceptions to the general five-year rule include the following:
Keep in mind that the state deadline is often different than the federal deadline. For example, Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on arson crimes is five years, which is half the federal limit. Defendants should also remember that white collar crimes (financial crimes) and federal crimes often overlap, as some of the aforementioned examples (fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion) demonstrate.
Finally, there are also some additional exceptions where the statute may be extended based on the circumstances of the case, such as crimes involving fugitives or DNA evidence.
If you’ve been charged with a federal crime, or if someone you love was arrested in Philadelphia, you need an aggressive legal team on your side. To set up a free and confidential legal consultation, call Philadelphia defense attorney Lloyd Long at (215) 302-0171 today. We are prepared to handle misdemeanor and felony crimes throughout Pennsylvania.