Many people don't realize that there are specific time limits regarding federal criminal charges. The statute of limitations addresses the maximum amount of time that can elapse between the crime itself and the date on which the case against the defendant can be filed. Case don't have to be finished within this time period; they only have to be started during it.
The purpose of the statute of limitations is to ensure that a person who is accused of a crime doesn't have to devise a defense that might be challenging due to the length of time that passed since the crime. Evidence can be lost, witnesses can die, disappear or no longer clearly remember the event in question.
Multiple time limits
Not all federal crimes have the same statute of limitations. For the most part, prosecutors have five years to file criminal charges. Some notable exceptions include specific sex offenses, murder, any crime punishable by death and terrorism. These offenses don't have a statute of limitations, so prosecutors are free to file days or even decades after the alleged crime is committed. Other exceptions also apply.
Below are some examples of statutory limitations:
- Eight years - nonviolent terrorism if the same crime with violence is without a time limit
- 10 years - immigration offenses, arson, crimes against financial institutions
- 20 years - theft of artwork
- 10 years to life of victim - cases involving sexual or physical abuse or kidnapping of a minor
Another exception occurs in time of war. If wartime fraud crimes occur, charges can be issued up to five years after the end of the war. While some clarifications have been made about this, it is unclear whether the clock only starts at the formal termination of war or at some other point.
Suspensions of the time limit
It is possible for the clock to stop periodically on the time limit for filing federal criminal charges. This is the case if there is DNA evidence that needs to be analyzed before a sexual abuse offense can be prosecuted. It can also stop if there is an accusation about asset concealment in a bankruptcy case. The same is true if some of the evidence needed for the case is held overseas. Some variations also exist for conspiracy charges, as well as cases involving fugitives.
No matter what type of federal charge you are facing or think you will face, you need to learn your defense options and determine what is in your best interests. Learning your rights, including those set forth by due process clauses, can be beneficial in these cases.