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The Length of and Legal Use for Federal Statutes of Limitation

The federal court system seeks to ensure that no proven crime prosecuted at its level goes unpunished. However, in many instances it can only punish crimes that are charged and tried within a timely manner. The statute of limitations for federal crimes varies and can in some cases mean that criminals are never charged or that they outright never see the inside of a courtroom for their offenses. 

What Is a Statute of Limitation?

A statute of limitation is the amount of time during which legal proceedings for an offense must occur. It serves as a time clock of sorts for lawyers and judges to take action to charge, prosecute, and find a defendant guilty of a crime for which he or she has been accused. 

It was designed to allow many crimes to be prosecuted promptly so evidence and memories of the offense remain fresh in the minds of everyone involved in the case. It also ensures that evidence is not tampered with or lost, which can jeopardize the constitutional rights of the accused.

The statute of limitations at every level including federal applies to numerous offenses like statutory rape, medical malpractice, and some types of theft or fraud. It may not apply to more serious crime or offenses that can lead to the death penalty, most notably:

  • Terrorism
  • Murder
  • Federal sex offenses

In some instances, the statute of limitations can be longer for select crimes including:

  • Arson 
  • Art theft
  • Crimes against financial institutions like banks
  • Immigration offenses

It can also be put on hold or suspended when the accused is a fugitive from the law or the offense in question involves child abuse, bankruptcy, wartime fraud of the government, or DNA evidence.

When Does the Statute of Limitation Begin?

The statute of limitation in most cases begins when the offense occurs. The amount of time that can lapse in between the event and prosecution or legal proceedings of it will depend on the case in question and whether it is a first, second, or subsequent offense. It also may depend on where the person involved in the case lives.

Federal offenses generally have longer statutes of limitation and in cases of serious crimes like murder or terrorism can be indefinite. However, for crimes like fraud or malpractice that have finite statutes of limitations, it is imperative that the filing of charges and prosecution take place promptly. If a person decides to wait until a day longer than the statute for the crime allows, he or she has no legal grounds for filing charges against the accused party.

Further, statutes of limitations can apply to debts, including those owed for medical or credit card bills and student loans. Some types of debts like student loans and back taxes have no statute of limitations during which a creditor can collect on what is owed. 

Other types of debt like credit card or medical bills have finite statutes of limitations. Once those expire, the creditor can no longer pursue collection activities against the debtor.

It does not mean, however, that the debtor no longer owes the debt. If he or she begins making payments after the statute of limitation expires, the time clock for collecting on the debt begins anew. The creditor is given a new statute of limitation during which it can pursue collection for the owed amount.

Debates Over Statutes of Limitation

Statutes of limitation have long been the subject of controversy. Debate about whether or not to continue them or suspend them entirely continues to ensue in courtrooms across the country. Both sides of the argument have strong opinions about their legalities and necessity.

Proponents for statutes of limitation say that they are necessary to protect the constitutional rights of defendants. Statutes of limitation ensure that evidence and eyewitness testimonies will be presented in court while they are fresh and untainted. They give the accused the best chance of a fair trial.

However, critics of statutes of limitation say that they take away from the victim’s right to justice. A victim may not be able to take action within the allowed statute of limitation because of factors like a lack of money to hire an attorney, fear of reprisal, or blocked or unclear memories of what happened during the offense.

Statutes of limitation apply to many crimes including those prosecuted in federal court. They are designed to protect the integrity and constitutionality of a case. However, they also are the subject of controversy because of their ability to limit alleged victims’ chances for justice.

Author bio

Brett A. Podolsky is a Criminal Legal Specialist certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is the former Assistant Criminal District Attorney for the State of Texas. As a criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas, Mr. Podolsky dedicates his entire practice to litigation. He accepts a wide variety of cases, including drug charges, federal crimes, white-collar crimes, and sex crimes.