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What is a Statute of Limitations?

Published on May 23rd, 2017

In both criminal and civil law the statutes of limitations are laws that place time limits during which a lawsuit or a criminal prosecution must begin. Should any of these limits “run” or “expire” without at least the start of legal actions, the courts will usually dismiss the prosecution or lawsuit upon the request of the defendant. Historically, the statutes of limitations are a relatively new development but can be traced backward in time to the period of the English Civil War.
In the Tudor and Stuart Dynasties (ca 1550 to 1650 CE) it was common for the Crown to prosecute individuals based on something that had been said or done decades earlier, and quite often, after any witnesses for the accused were either dead or out of the country. In response to this abuse of power by the Crown, the statutes of limitations were introduced into English law and were later transplanted into the legal systems of the former American colonies.
“Civil” Statutes of Limitations
“Civil” statutes of limitations are defined in the civil laws of each state and are thus subject to the whims of state legislatures. As a rule, most states have a statute of limitations that restricts wrongful death, significant injury, and/or major property damage lawsuits to a period of from two to four years from the date of the injury. Other civil actions usually must be filed within three to four years.
There are also statutes of limitations that apply to the collection of debts and compliance with contracts. Most states have enacted statutes of limitations of between three and six years and, once a statute has “run” or expired, a creditor loses the right to file a debt collection lawsuit although they can continue to seek payment by other methods.
Statutes of Limitations in Criminal Law
As noted previously, the statutes of limitations originally applied only to criminal prosecutions but, over time, were gradually applied in civil lawsuits as well.
  • Federal criminal law
In general, the statutes of limitations for most federal criminal charges is five years from the date of the alleged offense (United States Code 18 Section 3282). There are, however, certain classes of crimes where the statutes may be extended beyond this limit. Such crimes include:
  • Tax evasion and refusal to file a tax return with the IRS (six years)
  • Fraud greater than $1 million against US government (seven years)
  • Embezzlement from government-regulated financial institutions (10 years)
  • Arson (10 years)
  • Possession and/or use of fraudulent citizenship or immigration documents (10 years)
There are no federal statutes of limitations for:
  • Sex crimes involving children
  • Terrorist acts resulting in the death or severe injury of one or more victims
  • Crimes against humanity/war crimes
  • Any federal crime that carries the death penalty
It is important to note that it is possible to be tried in a federal court and a state court for identical alleged crimes. The “double jeopardy” prohibition does not apply in such prosecutions because, technically, these are tried in two distinct criminal jurisdictions– federal and state.
  • State criminal law
The statutes of limitations in state courts varies, often dramatically, from state to state. Generally, criminal statutes of limitations tend to run slightly longer than those which apply to civil lawsuits.
The application of the statutes of limitations can vary from case to case in ways that are too complex to be presented in this short posting. Since a misinterpretation of a statute of limitations can lead to a rejection of that lawsuit on “technical” grounds, it is necessary to consult with an experienced criminal lawyer when contemplating a course of action that should consider the proper application of the statutes.

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