Just as with most state crimes, federal crimes usually have a statute of limitations. This is a limit of time where federal charges may be filed against you or any person who is suspected of committing a crime, within a certain time period of when the crime allegedly happened.
This is a protection for people from being harassed and having to defend themselves for years from charges that stem from years or decades ago. Evidence also may have degraded over time and might no longer be available. The argument goes that it would be a violation of due process if a prosecution of the alleged criminal took place in these situations.
The statute of limitations is a good defense to a federal criminal charge, but note that not raising it before trial constitutes a waiver and then the prosecution could then proceed.
The origination of the statute of limitations is the speedy trial clause in the US Constitution. This clause prevents a person from having an unreasonable delay between the indictment and trial. Statutes of limitation and due process laws protect the accused from these kinds of unreasonable delays in prosecution.
Statutes of limitations often encourage law enforcement officers to investigate suspected criminal activity quickly. This leads to a better outcome in cases both for the plaintiff and for the defense.
It should be noted that the US Patriot Act made a number of changes in statutes of limitations that relate to several federal crimes, such as terrorism.
Federal Statutes of Limitations History
Statutes of limitation at the federal level go back hundreds of years. When the Founding Fathers first met at the First Congress, they passed not just the first criminal laws but also made prosecution under the laws subject to statutes of limitation. Related provisions have continued to the present day. While federal crimes can be prosecuted at any time, but generally a five year statute is in place, with some exceptions outlined below.
Statutes of Limitation Under Federal Law
According to US Code 18 Section 3282, the statute of limitations for the majority of crimes is five years. Keep in mind that the statute of limitations could be longer in some cases, OR may not exist at all for some crimes. The statute of limitations also may be lengthened in some cases, such as where the accused is a fugitive, or if DNA evidence is needed from the accused, or if more time is required to get evidence from abroad.
When Are Statutes of Limitation Longer Than Five Years?
Some crimes have a longer statute of limitations:
- Evading federal income taxes: 6 years
- Not filing a federal tax return with the IRS: 6 years
- Significant fraud of $1 million or more involving the US government: 7 years
- Arson: 10 years
- Embezzling money from a federal institution: 10 years
- Using fraudulent citizenship documents: 10 years
Which Crimes Have No Statute of Limitations?
Some crimes are of such a serious nature that there is no statute of limitations. These are:
- Federal crimes with the death penalty, such as murder
- Terrorism crimes that cause death or serious injury
- Sex crimes with a child or minor
Statute of Limitations Defense
Most defendants will use the federal statute of limitations as a defense when they can, but the court cannot force the defendant to use it. Of course, normally it is in the best interests of the defense to use the statute of limitations. But it does happen sometimes that the defendant will waive it.
This defense could be waive by mutual agreement of the parties involved, if the agreement is supported by plenty of consideration. For example, a debtor might agree to waive the statute of limitations in exchange for the creditor to not sue. This would be valuable consideration that would cause the defense to not use this defense.