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 Massachusetts and most other states, violent crimes generally have longer statutes of limitations, and some crimes (like murder and 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.
Like many states, Massachusetts’s law sets time limits for a host of specific crimes. For crimes not specifically listed in the statute, a general statute of limitations—six years after the crime—applies.
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 277, § 63 (2019).)
Below are examples of time limits for specific crimes in Massachusetts. 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.
The following offenses have no time limit. But, if filed more than 27 years after the crime, the prosecutor must have independent, corroborating evidence in addition to the victim’s testimony.
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.
Massachusetts law extends a prosecutor’s window to charge certain crimes committed against victims younger than 16. The time clock doesn’t begin to run until the victim turns 16 or the violation is reported to a law enforcement agency, whichever occurs earlier. Examples of such crimes include drugging a minor for sexual intercourse, enticing a minor to commit sex or prostitution, dissemination of harmful matters to minors, and unlawful and lascivious acts.
Also, if a person tries to “evade” (avoid) prosecution, the law gives the prosecutor extra time to file charges. In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations doesn’t run while the defendant is not usually and publicly a 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.