Prosecutors usually have a limited amount of time to charge someone with a crime. Failing to file charges within the time limits—called "statutes of limitations"—can result in the case being dismissed. Read on to learn how Pennsylvania's statutes of limitations work and what the limits are for several types of 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 can have the case dismissed.
In Pennsylvania and most other states, the time limits depend on the offense level or the specific crime. Violent crimes generally have longer statutes of limitations, and some crimes (like murder) have no statute of limitations—meaning a criminal case can be filed at any time. In some situations, statutes of limitations are "tolled" (suspended), allowing the government more time to bring a case.
Lawmakers can and do change limitations periods. For example, in 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly increased the amount of time a prosecutor has to file charges in a case of rape of an adult from 5 years to 12 years. New time limits apply to crimes committed after the law was changed and, sometimes, to crimes committed before the law changed. Whether changes apply to past crimes depends on a couple of factors and can be complicated. Importantly, a new time limit doesn't apply if the prosecutor had already run out of time to file the charges.
You might want to consult with an attorney if you have questions about a specific statute of limitations.
Like many states, Pennsylvania sets time limits for a host of specific crimes. For crimes not specifically listed in the statutes, a general statute of limitations of two years applies for felonies and misdemeanors. For summary offenses involving vehicle violations, the time limit is the latest of either 30 days after the commission of the offense, discovery of the offense, or discovery of the offender's identity.
(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 5551-5554 (2022).)
Below are examples of time limits for specific crimes in Pennsylvania. Keep in mind that the following is a partial list that broadly summarizes the law. You should look at the actual law for nuances and exceptions.
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.
Below are some examples of situations where the starting of the time clock is delayed.
Pennsylvania gives prosecutors extra time to charge felonies and certain misdemeanor sex offenses after DNA evidence identifies the suspect. Charges can be filed within one year after the suspect's identity is confirmed.
The law also provides extra time to charge certain sex offenses involving minors. The time clock doesn't run until the victim turns 18. If the original time limit for the offense expires, the prosecutor can still file charges any time up until the victim turns 55 (and if it's a no-time-limit sex offense discussed above, they can charge it at any time).
In a similar vein, the time clock is delayed for certain kinds of sexual offenses committed against a victim younger than 24, including sexual assault, indecent exposure, and sex trafficking. In those cases, the clock doesn't start ticking until the victim turns 24. If the specified time for the particular offense expires after that, the prosecution can still charge any time up until 20 years after the offense.
In cases involving child abuse, neglect, or violence by a parent or caregiver, Pennsylvania provides that the statute of limitations doesn't run while the child remains in the home.
Pennsylvania law also extends the time to charge crimes involving fraud or a breach of fiduciary duty. The prosecutor has one year after the discovery of the offense to bring charges, with a maximum extension of three years.
For offenses committed by a public officer or employee, the prosecutor can bring the case any time the defendant remains in public office or employment or within five years after leaving the position. The maximum extension for filing charges is eight years.
If a person tries to "evade" (avoid) arrest for a crime, the law gives the prosecutor extra time to file charges. In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations doesn't run while the defendant is absent from the state or has no ascertainable place of residence or work in the state.
Statutes of limitations are confusing to say the least. The same conduct can be the basis for multiple criminal charges, meaning that more than one limitation period could apply. And because lawmakers can make changes to statutes of limitations, the time limit currently in law might not apply to a past crime. Consult a knowledgeable attorney in your area to understand how the statutes of limitations apply in a specific case.