Tennessee Criminal Statute of Limitations

Statutes of limitations set time limits for prosecutors to file charges in criminal cases.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 1/23/2024

Like most states, Tennessee 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 Tennessee's statutes of limitations work and what they are for several crimes.

What Are Criminal Statutes of Limitations?

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.

How Long After a Crime Can Charges Be Filed in Tennessee?

In Tennessee and most other states, the time limits depend on the offense level or the specific crime. For instance, a prosecutor might have 10 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) 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.)

Can the Statutes of Limitations Change?

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 how the law is written. Typically, the new time limits only apply to crimes committed after the law changed or, in some cases, to crimes committed before the law changed as long as the old time limit had not already expired.

The Tennessee General Assembly 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.

Tennessee's Statute of Limitations for Felonies and Misdemeanors

Like many states, Tennessee 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:

  • 15 years for Class A felonies
  • 8 years for Class B felonies
  • 4 years for Class C and D felonies
  • 2 years for Class E felonies, and
  • 1 year for misdemeanors.

Felonies punishable by death or life imprisonment can be prosecuted at any time.

Tennessee's Statutes of Limitation for Specific Crimes

Below are examples of time limits for specific crimes in Tennessee. 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.

Statutes of Limitations for Murder and Manslaughter

  • First-degree murder: no time limit
  • Second-degree murder: no time limit for crimes committed after July 1, 2019; otherwise 15 years after the crime
  • Voluntary manslaughter: 8 years after the crime
  • Vehicular manslaughter (due to intoxication): 4 years after the crime

Statutes of Limitations for Rape, Sexual Offenses, and Trafficking

  • Sexual offenses against a minor (committed on or after July 1, 2019)
    • Victim younger than 13: no time limit
    • Victim age 13 to 17 and reported the offense to another person before turning 23: no time limit
    • Victim age 13 to 17 and not reported by age 23: varies but generally 10 to 25 years after the victim turns 18 (sometimes shorter)
  • Aggravated rape or rape of a child (committed on or after June 30, 2006, and not reported): 25 years after the child turns 18
  • Aggravated rape or rape of adult (committed on or after July 1, 2014, and reported within 3 years): no time limit

Statutes of Limitations for Tax Crimes Against the State

  • Crimes of defrauding the state, evading taxes, or filing fraudulent tax returns: 6 years after the crime
  • Other revenue crimes against the state: 3 years after the crime

Statutes of Limitations for Theft Crimes

  • Felony theft (more than $1,000 or theft of a firearm): 2 to 15 years after the crime depending on the offense level
  • Misdemeanor theft ($1,000 or less): 1 year after the crime

When Does the Statute of Limitations Start in Tennessee?

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. Tennessee law allows a prosecutor to file charges or issue a warrant based on an offender's DNA profile. These actions stop the "limitations clock" even without knowing the identity of the suspect.

Corroborating evidence. In cases involving a sex offense against a minor age 13 to 17, the law allows the case to be prosecuted at any time if the prosecution has admissible and credible evidence corroborating the victim's allegations.

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 Tennessee, the statute of limitations doesn't run while the defendant conceals the crime or is not a resident of the state.

Time to Talk to a Lawyer

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. The Tennessee General Assembly has changed the statute of limitations many times, and a careful reading is required to determine the applicable time limit. Consult a knowledgeable attorney in your area to understand how the statutes of limitations apply in a specific case.

(Tenn. Code §§ 40-2-101 to 40-2-106 (2024).)

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