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 Pennsylvania and most other states, 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 certain instances, statutes of limitations are “tolled” (suspended), allowing the government more time to bring a case.
Like many states, Pennsylvania law sets time limits for a host of specific crimes. For crimes not specifically listed in the statute, 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 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 (2020).)
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.
And know that changes to limitations periods made by the legislature apply only to crimes not yet time-barred. This means that, if the prosecution already ran out of time to file charges under the old law, any new changes to the law extending time limits don't apply.
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.
DNA evidence. For instance, Pennsylvania allows extra time for prosecutors to file charges in certain misdemeanor sex offenses where DNA evidence is collected and identifies the suspect. Charges can be filed within one year after the suspect's identity is confirmed.
Sex offenses against minors. The law also provides extra time to charge certain sex offense cases 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.
Trafficking offenses. In a similar vein, the time clock for a trafficking offense committed against a victim younger than 24 doesn't begin to run until the victim turns 24. If the time expires, the prosecution can still charge any time up until 20 years after the offense.
Child abuse in the home. 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.
Fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. Pennsylvania law also extends a prosecutor's window 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.
Misconduct in public office. 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.
Evading prosecution. Also, 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 limitations 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.