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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
Felonies punishable by death or life imprisonment can be prosecuted at any time.
The general time limits for other crimes are:
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.
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.
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 -106 (2022).)