Like most states, Iowa 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 Iowa'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 Iowa and most other states, the time limits depend on the offense level or the specific crime. For instance, a prosecutor might have three years to file most felony charges but only one year to file misdemeanor charges. Violent crimes generally have longer statutes of limitations, and some crimes (like murder) may 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. (More on "tolling" below.)
Lawmakers can change limitations periods. For example, they could change the statute of limitations for child sex crimes from 10 years to 25 years. But whether changes apply to past crimes depends on a couple of factors. Importantly, a new time limit created by the legislature doesn't apply if the prosecutor had already run out of time to file the charges.
The Iowa Legislature has amended (changed) its law on statutes of limitations several times. You might want to consult with an attorney if you have questions on a particular issue.
Like many states, Iowa'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 Iowa. 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—and know that court rulings can affect the interpretation of the law.
Generally, the statute of limitations starts when the crime occurs. 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 or extend the limitations period.
Iowa law provides two types of extensions when DNA evidence is available.
First, for a list of specific offenses, the time limit for charging the offense is the later of (1) the time period set in statute or (2) three years after identifying a suspect by DNA. This extension applies to certain sexual offenses against an adult, kidnapping, human trafficking of a child, and fraud in assisted reproduction.
Second, in other felony and aggravated or serious misdemeanor cases, the law allows prosecutors to file criminal charges in a case using only a DNA profile. Filing the DNA profile tolls (suspends) the running of the time clock. Upon DNA identification, the prosecutor has three years to file charges against the identified suspect.
Iowa provides an extension to charge crimes that involve fraud or breach of fiduciary duty as a material element. If the limitations period has already expired, the prosecution has one year after the discovery of the crime to bring the case, with a maximum extension of five years.
The law also extends a prosecutor's window to charge certain crimes relating to misconduct in public office or employment. The clock doesn't run during any time the defendant is a public officer or employee.
If a person tries to "evade" (avoid) arrest for a crime, the law gives the prosecutor extra time to file charges. In Iowa, the statute of limitations doesn't run while the defendant is not publicly resident in the state.
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.
(Iowa Code §§ 802.1 to .10 (2024).)