Criminal Statutes of Limitations (2024)

Statutes of limitations establish time limits for charging defendants with a crime.

Statutes of limitations establish time limits for starting criminal proceedings. Basically, these time limits are meant to prevent police and prosecutors from sitting on criminal charges for lengthy amounts of time. To promote fair trials and obtain justice, prosecutions are best conducted while memories are fresh and evidence and witnesses are still available, and defendants shouldn't be forced to defend old, stale allegations.

Read on to understand how criminal statutes of limitations work and what happens if the time limit passes.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

State and federal laws define and set statutes of limitations—time limits—for bringing both civil and criminal cases. In civil cases, the judge can throw out a lawsuit if a plaintiff waits too long to bring a case. The same holds true in criminal cases.

What Are Criminal Statutes of Limitations?

Once a crime occurs (or, sometimes, is discovered), the prosecutor only has a certain amount of time to file or press charges in the case. The actual time limit—whether it's one year or 20 years—generally varies by crime. Less serious crimes tend to have shorter limits, while prosecutors typically have more time to file more serious charges.

Do All Crimes Have Statutes of Limitations?

No. In many states, certain crimes don't have a statute of limitations, meaning the prosecutor can file these charges at any time, even if 20, 30, or more years have passed since the crime happened. These crimes tend to be murder, treason, and rape offenses. A few states have no statutes of limitations for any felony.

How Long Does the Prosecutor Have to File Criminal Charges?

The time limits set in the law differ widely from one state to another. For most felonies, a prosecutor has several years (sometimes decades) to bring the case. Misdemeanor-level charges must generally be charged within a year or two.

Examples of Statutes of Limitations in Criminal Cases

By way of example, here are some time limits suggested by the Model Penal Code:

  • murder charges: no time limit
  • felony charges: six years
  • misdemeanor charges: two years, and
  • petty misdemeanors and infractions: six months.

Some states follow the Model Penal Code's example and set only a few limitations periods. Other states' limitation periods are much more complicated. A state might have different time limits for crimes involving homicide, sexual assault, violence, fraud, official misconduct, theft, and more.

Factors That Might Affect Statutes of Limitations

Statutes of limitations might also vary depending on the offense level, evidence, victim's age, and other factors. For instance, several states have enacted laws that extend time limits for crimes where DNA evidence is collected. So if the general time limit is six years for a felony, the law might allow the prosecutor to file charges within nine years if DNA evidence was collected.

Many states have special limitation periods that apply in child sex offense cases, recognizing that many child victims don't report crimes until they are older. For example, a state law may allow a prosecutor to file charges at any time up until the victim's 40th birthday. Some states delay the starting of the limitations period until after the victim reports the crime.

Can States Change Their Statutes of Limitations and Make Them Longer?

Yes and no. States change their laws all the time, including statutes of limitations. However, because of a constitutional provision (that prohibits ex post facto laws), states cannot give prosecutors extra time for crimes where the previous limitations period already expired. (Basically, the law can't revive a dead case.) But, if the time limit hasn't expired on a case, it's fair game.

Let's say the statute of limitations for theft in 2000 is five years. Joe steals a car in 2000, which means the prosecutor has until 2005 to file the criminal charges. In 2008, the state legislature changes the limitations period for theft to 10 years. This change doesn't apply to Joe's crime because the limitations period expired in 2005. Had the legislature made the change in 2001 (or anytime before 2005), the new 10-year limitations period would have applied to Joe.

When Does the Clock Start Running on Statutes of Limitations?

Statutes of limitations generally begin to "run" on the date that crimes are committed. So if a person steals a car on June 1, 2010, the clock starts ticking right then. But when a crime unfolds over a period of days, months, or even years, prosecutors and defense attorneys may have conflicting positions about when the clock started running against the time limit. In some cases, the clock might even pause temporarily and start up again (called "tolling").

Say Jane embezzles money from a client over a span of 10 years. For purposes of the statute of limitations, when did the crime(s) start—on day 1 or in year 10? Depending on the state's law, it might be neither: The law may say the clock starts ticking when the victim or authorities discovered or should have discovered the embezzlement. Now let's say Jane gets nervous about being caught and decides to move to another state for three years. Under most states' laws, her move out of state will pause the clock on the statute of limitations and only restart if Jane moves back to the state.

Continuing offenses (the embezzlement example) and absconding (the out-of-state move example) are just two scenarios of many that can impact the "running" or "tolling" of statutes of limitations. Again, these wrinkles in the rules make it a good idea to seek legal advice.

What Happens If the Statute of Limitations Runs or Expires?

Although you might think that a prosecutor can't file charges once the time limit expires, that's not the case. If a prosecutor charges a "stale case," it may still proceed through the courts. It's up to the defendant to figure out whether the limitations period has indeed run and to raise the issue with the judge. Judges don't take it upon themselves to review cases for possible limitations problems. If the defendant is successful in the claim, the judge will typically dismiss the expired charges.

Complete Bar to Prosecution vs. Affirmative Defense

Some states treat the statute of limitations as a complete bar to jurisdiction, meaning the court doesn't have the authority to hear the matter. In these states, a defendant can't generally waive (give up) this right. If the defendant fails to raise the issue at trial, it can be raised later in an appeal or other challenge. Other states regard limitation periods as affirmative defenses that must be raised before or during trial. If the defense isn't timely raised, the defendant is considered to have waived it and any resulting conviction stands.

Who Decides If the Criminal Statute of Limitations Has Run?

Sometimes, the matter is clear cut. The defendant raises the issue and the judge dismisses the charges. But, as you can see from the information above, it's not always clear what time limit applies and when it started or, perhaps, paused. It's also possible that the prosecutor files multiple charges in a case and they all have different time limits.

If disagreement exists over the law, the judge will make the decision. When a factual dispute is in play, such as when the crime was discovered, the question may go to the jury to decide.

Getting Legal Help

If you have questions about the statute of limitations in a particular case, talk to a criminal defense attorney. The attorney can navigate the law and explain how it applies given the facts of the case.

Selected State-by-State Statutes of Limitations

Every state has detailed laws concerning which statute of limitations applies to various criminal offenses. Find your state below for information on your state's rules.

Keep in mind that in many instances, when the statute begins to run, when it ends, and whether it should be considered tolled (suspended) will not be addressed in the statutes—these are issues that lawyers raise and judges decide on a case-by-case basis.

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina

Criminal Statutes of Limitations (2024)


Is there anyway around a statute of limitations? ›

Tolling of the statute of limitations

Sometimes the statute of limitations is suspended (“tolled”) for a period of time, and then begins to run again. For example, tolling may happen when the defendant is a minor, is out of the state or in prison, or is insane.

How long is the statute of limitations on most crimes? ›

The range is usually from one year for many misdemeanors, three years for many felonies, to no time limit at all for crimes that are punishable by death or by life in prison. If there is no statute of limitations, the prosecutor may bring charges against someone at any time.

What crimes in the US have no statute of limitations? ›

For capital crimes, such as the capital murder, there is no statute of limitations (18 USC 3281). . Terrorism is also not subject to any statute of limitations where the offense caused death or serious bodily injury or harm (18 USC 3286).

What is an exception to the statute of limitations? ›

In some states, crimes like sex offenses involving minors, or violent acts such as kidnapping or arson, are exempt from statutes of limitations. This allows legal action to be taken regardless of how much time has passed since the offense occurred.

What state has no statute of limitations? ›

In a few states, such as Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina, there is no statute of limitations on felony charges. A few others, including South Carolina and Wyoming, have no statutes of limitations for criminal charges at all.

Do all states have statute of limitations? ›

In that way, the statute of limitations is a very practical law. All 50 states, and the District of Columbia, normally limit the time in which a person can bring legal proceedings for written contracts against another from 3—10 years maximum, depending on the state. However, there are exceptions.

Can I go to jail for something I did years ago? ›

Under California Penal Code 801 PC, felonies (or offenses punishable by imprisonment) have a statute of limitations of three years. Less severe charges involving misdemeanors have an SOL of one year (in general).

How long can a felony charge be pending in Texas? ›

In most cases, a felony charge will be pending for three years.

What happens when you go on the run from the law? ›

A warrant will be issued for your arrest.

For fugitives who flee from one state to another to avoid arrest, a fugitive from justice warrant will be issued in one jurisdiction for someone who's a fugitive in another jurisdiction.

How many years is a federal crime? ›

In accordance with federal law, the statute of limitations for most non-capital crimes is five years.

What is the highest felony in the US? ›

Classes of offenses under United States federal law
TypeClassMaximum prison term
FelonyALife imprisonment (or death in certain cases of murder, treason, espionage or mass trafficking of drugs)
B25 years or more
CLess than 25 years but 10 or more years
DLess than 10 years but 5 or more years
5 more rows

What is the US crimes against humanity statute? ›

Crimes Against Humanity Act of 2010 - Amends the federal criminal code to impose a fine and/or prison term of up to 20 years (or any term of years or for life if death results from a violation of the prohibitions of this Act) on any person who commits or engages in conduct that would violate specified federal criminal ...

What is the delayed discovery rule? ›

The delayed discovery rule extends the statute of limitations to begin from the date when the cause of death was discovered, or reasonably should have been discovered, as opposed to the actual date of death.

What is the statute of limitations clause? ›

A Standard Clause that limits the period of time in which a party can file contractual claims against another contract party.

What is an exception in a statute? ›

A statutory exception is a rule that says something is allowed even though it would normally be against the law. It's like getting a special permission slip to do something that's usually not allowed.

What crimes have no statute of limitations in Texas? ›

In Texas, there is no statute of limitations for the following serious criminal allegations: murder, manslaughter, sexual assault of a child, aggravated sexual assault of a child, sexual assaults where DNA was collected, serial sexual assaults, continuous sexual assault, indecency with a child, leaving the scene of an ...

What is the statute of limitations on common counts in California? ›

Common counts.

CCP §339(1). The account stated, book account, and mutual, open, and current account common counts require a writing. Therefore, the statute of limitations for these actions is 4 years, even if the underlying transaction was entirely oral in nature.

How long does the DA have to file charges in California? ›

For misdemeanor offenses, the DA generally has one year from the date of the alleged offense to file charges. This means that if you are accused of a misdemeanor, the DA must bring charges against you within one year of the date that the crime was allegedly committed.

What is the purpose of a statute of repose? ›

A statute of repose focuses on immunizing the alleged injuring party from long-term liability, and thus may even be based on elapsed time from an event, even if the potential cause of action cannot reasonably be discovered until a later date.


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