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 Wisconsin and most other states, violent crimes generally have longer statutes of limitations, and some crimes (like murder and sexual assault of a child) 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, Wisconsin 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 for other crimes are:
(Wis. Stat. § 939.74 (2020).)
Below are examples of time limits for specific crimes in Wisconsin. 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. In other words, if the prosecution already ran out of time to file charges under the old time limit, any new changes to the law extending time limits don't apply to that case—it remains time-barred.
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, Wisconsin allows extra time for prosecutors to file charges in felony sexual assault cases where DNA evidence is collected. In cases where the limitations period has otherwise expired, the prosecutor has 12 months to file criminal charges after a probable DNA identification of the suspect.
Sexual exploitation by a therapist. The law also takes into account that a victim who is sexually abused by a therapist may be unable to report the crime due to threats or effects of the abuse. The statute of limitations doesn't include any time during which the victim was unable to report the crime.
Breach of fiduciary duty. Wisconsin law also extends a prosecutor's window to charge crime involving a breach of a fiduciary duty involving misappropriation of property. The prosecutor has one year after the discovery of the offense to bring charges, up to a maximum extension of five 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 Wisconsin, the statute of limitations doesn't run while the defendant is not publicly 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 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.