Like most states, Georgia sets time limits for prosecutors to begin a criminal case against a suspect. These time limits—called statutes of limitations—can put an end to the case even if a defendant is guilty. This article will briefly review how Georgia's statutes of limitations work and what they are for several crimes.
Statutes of limitations set time limits for the government to bring criminal charges in a case. If the prosecution charges someone after the applicable time period has passed, the person charged can have the case dismissed.
In Georgia and most other states, the time limits depend on the offense level or the specific crime. For instance, a prosecutor might have seven years to file most felony charges but only two years to file misdemeanor charges. Violent crimes generally have longer statutes of limitations, and some crimes (like murder or child rape) have no statute of limitations—meaning a criminal case can be filed at any time. In certain instances, statutes of limitations are "tolled" (suspended), allowing the government more time to bring a case.
A defendant who believes the statute of limitations has expired on one or more charges must raise the issue with the court. Upon raising the issue, the prosecutor has the burden of proving the charges were timely followed. If the prosecutor fails to meet this burden, the judge must dismiss the charges.
Like many states, Georgia's law sets time limits for a host of specific crimes. For crimes not specifically listed in the statute, a general statute of limitations applies based on the category of the crime.
The general time limits are:
Below are examples of time limits for specific crimes in Georgia. Keep in mind that the following is a partial list that broadly summarizes the law. You should look at the actual law for nuances, exceptions, and legislative changes.
The following crimes (committed on or after July 1, 2012) have no time limits if the victim was younger than 16:
Generally, the statute of limitations starts when the crime occurs and stops when an indictment is filed. But in circumstances where it's difficult to discover the crime or a victim might be particularly scared to report it, the law might delay the starting of the time clock, pause the clock (toll), or extend the limitations period.
For instance, Georgia allows the prosecution to file charges at any time for the following crimes if DNA evidence is preserved and identifies the accused: armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, or aggravated sexual battery.
If the defendant is a government officer or employee accused of stealing public property, the clock doesn't run during any time the defendant was in that role.
Georgia law suspends the time clock for cases involving theft of a ward or beneficiary's property by a guardian or trustee. The clock doesn't run during the time the accused is in the role of guardian or trustee.
The law extends a prosecutor's window to charge certain crimes committed against victims 65 or older. The time clock doesn't begin to run until the violation is reported to or discovered by the authorities, whichever occurs earlier, up to a maximum extension of 15 years.
Also, if a person tries to "evade" (avoid) prosecution, the law gives the prosecutor extra time to file charges. In Georgia, the statute of limitations doesn't run while the defendant is not usually and publicly a resident in the state, the defendant is unknown, or the crime is unknown.
Statutes of limitations are confusing, to say the least. In addition to identifying the time limit applicable to a specific crime, one must navigate exceptions, exclusions, extensions, court interpretations, and legislative changes. Consult a knowledgeable attorney in your area to understand how the statutes of limitations apply in a specific case.
(Ga. Code §§ 17-3-1, -2, -2.1, 2.2, -3 (2023).)