Criminal Statutes of Limitations

The statute of limitations defines a time limit within which the prosecution must file criminal charges before they are barred from doing so.

Statutes of limitations establish time limits for starting criminal proceedings. The rules reflect society's wish to proceed with prosecutions while memories are fresh and evidence and witnesses are still available.

Statutes of limitations generally start to "run" on the date that crimes are committed. If the applicable time limit expires before criminal proceedings begin, charges should not be filed (it's up to the defendant, however, to raise the problem).

You should read on to understand how the statutes work, but you can skip to criminal statutes of limitations in your state if you're in a hurry.

Typical Statutes of Limitations

The time limits that statutes of limitations establish vary from one state to another and according to the seriousness of a crime. In general, the more serious a crime, the more time a state has to begin criminal proceedings. By way of example, here are some time limits set forth in the current version of Section 1.06 of the “Model Penal Code,” which are similar to those of many states:

  • murder charges: no time limit
  • serious felony charges: six years
  • misdemeanor charges: two years, and
  • petty misdemeanors and infractions: six months.

States cannot retroactively change the rules to allow prosecution of crimes that are already barred by an existing statute of limitations. For example, assume that Will sexually molests a teenager named Joe. Joe doesn’t report what happened for many years. By the time he tells the police about the molestation, the statute of limitations has expired. Although the legislature can enact a new law that would allow the state more time to prosecute offenders, that new law won't apply retroactively to Will's case. (Stogner v. California, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2003.)

Case Example: Statutes of limitations

Larry breaks into a neighbor’s house and steals an Italian lamp that he has always wanted for his own apartment. The neighbor reports the burglary to the police. However, the police misplace the report and, as a result, don’t begin investigating the crime until many months later. By the time the police arrest Larry and the prosecutor is ready to begin criminal proceedings, the state’s three-year statute of limitations on burglary has expired. As a result, Larry cannot be prosecuted for burglary. If the prosecutor were to begin criminal proceedings, Larry would be entitled to have the case dismissed.

When Does the Clock Start and Stop?

When a crime unfolds over a period of days, months, or even years, prosecutors and defense attorneys may have conflicting positions about when the statute of limitations started to run or was tolled.

In addition, the clock is ticking only during the time that a suspect remains in the state where the crime was committed and has a fixed place of residence or work. In the example above, assume that after committing the burglary, Larry moves to another state for three years. A few months after he returns, the police arrest him for burglary. In these circumstances, the state’s three-year statute of limitations does not prevent Larry’s prosecution for burglary, because the statute of limitations was not running down during the three years that Larry was in a different state.

The Law is Changing

The law in this area is changing and evolving. Many states now allow a case involving sex charges to be brought within one year from the date that DNA evidence establishes the identity of the suspect, regardless of how much time has passed. In cases involving crimes against minors, the majority of states provide that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim turns 18. The laws vary greatly state by state; any time limit for bringing an action will depend on the rules of the state where the crime was committed.

What Happens if a Prosecutor Charges a Case Whose Statute of Limitations Period Has Run?

if a prosecutor charges a "stale case," it may still proceed through the courts. It's up to the defendant to figure out whether the statute has "run," and to raise the issue with the judge. Judges do not take it upon themselves to review cases for possible limitations problems.

Claiming that the statute of limitations has expired is known as raising an "affirmative defense." Defendants have to petition for dismissal based on a violation of the statute of limitations. For example, if someone pleads guilty to a reduced charge and later learns that the statute of limitations had expired, that person is out of luck. By law, he waived his right to rely on the statute of limitations by not raising the defense while the case was pending.

Your Right to a Speedy Trial and the Statute of Limitations

Statutes of limitations, which establish time limits for starting criminal proceedings, are distinguished from the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, which applies to the length of time between the beginning of criminal proceedings and cases going to trial. For example, a case could be properly brought within the applicable statute of limitations, but dismissed if the prosecutor failed to move it along and a judge decided that the defendant's right to a speedy trial was violated.

State-by-State Statutes of Limitations

Every state has detailed laws concerning which statute of limitation applies to various criminal offenses (the periods mentioned above in "Typical Statutes of Limitations" are only examples). For information on your state’s rules, consult the chart below. For in-depth information, click the link to your state.

Keep in mind that in many instances, when the statute begins to run, when it ends, and whether it should be considered suspended will not be addressed in the statutes—these are issues that lawyers raise and judges decide on a case-by-case basis.

State Statute Felonies Misdemeanors
Alabama AL § 15-3-1 et seq. 3 years after the commission of the offense within 12 months after the commission of the offense
Alaska Alaska Stat. § 12.10.010 et seq none for: murder; felony sexual abuse of a minor; unclassified class A or class B felony sexual assaults 5 years
Arizona Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-107 none for: Homicide; violent sexual assault; participating in a criminal syndicate; misuse of public money; falsifying public records within 1 year after actual discovery by the state or discovery that should have occurred with the exercise of reasonable diligence, whichever first occurs
Arkansas Ark. Code Ann. § 5-1-109 Class Y felony or Class A felony: 6 years 1 year
California California Pen. § § 799 - 803 Offenses punishable by imprisonment for eight years or more (some exceptions apply): 6 years; Other offenses punishable by imprisonment (some exceptions): 3 years 1 year after the date of the offense
Colorado Colo. Rev. Stat. 16-5-401 Most felonies: 3 years 18 months
Connecticut Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. § § 54-193 et seq. Most felonies: No statute of limitations 1 year
Delaware Del. Code Ann. Tit. 11 §205 (a), (b), (h), (c), (e), (i) Murder or any class A felony; certain sexual offenses as defined in subsection (e): No statute of limitations Class A misdemeanors: within 3 years after offense is committed
D.C. D.C. Code Ann. § 23-113 Most Felonies: none Within 3 years after crime is committed
Florida Fla. Stat 775.15 1st degree felony: 4 years; Any other felony: 3 years 1st degree misdemeanor: 2 years; 2nd degree misdemeanor: 1 year
Georgia Ga. Code Ann. 17-3-1, 2, 2.1, 2.2 Crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment: within seven years after the commission of the crime within two years after the commission of the crime
Hawaii Haw. Rev. Stat. §701-108 Manslaughter not caused by a motor vehicle: within ten years after the act is committed; Class A felony: within six years after the crime is committed Petty misdemeanor or violation other than a parking violation: within one year
Idaho Idaho Code § § 19-401, 402, 403, 404, 406 No statute of limitations: Murder; voluntary manslaughter; sexual abuse or lewd conduct with a child under the age of 16; an act of terrorism within 1 year after the crime
Illinois Ill. Comp. Stat. 720 ILCS 5/3-5, 5/3-6, 5/3-7 No statute of limitations for: First degree murder, attempt to commit first degree murder, second degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident involving death or personal injuries within one year and 6 months after the offense
Indiana Ind. Code Ann. 35-41-4-2 Class A felony: no statute of limitations; Class B, Class C, or Class D felony: within 5 years after the offense within 2 years after the offense
Iowa Iowa Code 802.1, 802.2, 802.2A, 802.3, 802.4, 802.5, 802.10 Murder: no statute of limitations; Other felonies or aggravated or serious misdemeanors: within 3 years after its commission or within 3 years after DNA evidence is available Simple misdemeanor or violation of a municipal or county rule or ordinance: within 1 year after its commission
Kansas Kan. Stat. Ann. 21-3106 Murder, terrorism, or illegal use of weapons of mass destruction: no statute of limitations; Sexually violent offenses: 5 years or 1 year after identity of suspect is established by DNA evidence All other crimes including felonies and misdemeanors: 5 years
Kentucky Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. 500.050 no statute of limitations within 1 year after it is committed; Misdemeanor when the victim is under 18: within 5 years after the victim turns 18
Louisiana La. Crim. Proc. Art. 571, 571.1, 572, 573, 573.1, 575 If the victim is under 17, statute of limitations is 30 years from the time victim turns 18 for the following crimes: Sexual battery, felony carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behavior with juveniles, molestation of a juvenile, crime or aggravated crime against nature, or incest or aggravated incest Misdemeanor punishable by a fine, or imprisonment, or both: 2 years; Misdemeanor punishable only by a fine or forfeiture: 6 months
Maine Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. 17-A §8 If victim is under under 16, no statute of limitations for: incest; unlawful sexual contact; sexual abuse of a minor; rape, or gross sexual assault
Maryland MD Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings § § 5-105, 5-106, 5-201 et seq.; MD Code, Crim. Law § 2-102 there is no overarching statute of limitations for felonies in Maryland. There may be limitations periods in individual offense statutes. Misdemeanors in general: within one year; Misdemeanors punishable by imprisonment: no limit
Massachusetts Mass. Gen. Laws 277 § 63 No statute of limitations for: Indecent assault and battery on child under 14 or person with intellectual disability; reckless behavior with risk of harm or sexual abuse to a child; rape of child; rape and abuse of a child; assault of child with intent to commit rape. within 6 years of offense
Michigan Mich. Comp. Laws 767.24 Criminal sexual conduct in the 2nd degree, 3rd degree, 4th degree, or sexual assault: within 10 years after the offense is committed or by the victim's 21st birthday, whichever is later; Kidnapping, extortion, assault with intent to commit murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, or 1st degree home invasion: within 10 years after the offense is committed within 6 years after the offense is committed
Minnesota Minn. Stat. Ann. 628.26 Murder, kidnapping, and labor trafficking if victim was under 18 - none; Criminal sexual conduct in 1st degree, 2nd degree, or 3rd degree where DNA evidence is used: no statute of limitations. within 3 years after the commission of the offense
Mississippi Miss. Code Ann. 99-1-5 Murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, kidnapping, arson, burglary, forgery, counterfeiting, robbery, larceny, rape, embezzlement, obtaining money or property under false pretenses or by fraud, felonious abuse or battery of a child - none within 2 years next after the commission
Missouri Mo. Rev. Stat. 556.036, 037 No statute of limitations: Murder, forcible rape, attempted forcible rape, forcible sodomy, attempted forcible sodomy, or any class A felony 1 year
Montana Mont. Code Ann. 45-1-205; 206 No statute of limitations: Deliberate, mitigated, or negligent homicide; Felony involving sexual assault; rape; or incest (where victim is under 16 and offender is 3 years older than victim, or where victim is under 12 and offender is 18 years or older): within 10 years after crime or 10 years after victim reaches 18 within 1 year
Nebraska Neb. Rev. Stat. 29-110 No statute of limitations: treason, murder, arson, forgery, sexual assault in 1st or 2nd, sexual assault of child in 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree, incest, sexual assault in 3rd degree with victim under 16 18 months, or 1 year if fine is less than $100 and maximum imprisonment is 3 months
Nevada Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. 171.080 et seq. Theft, robbery, burglary, forgery, arson, sexual assault, securities act violation, business fraud or deceit: 4 years Gross misdemeanor: 2 years; all other: 1 year
New Hampshire N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. 625:8 Class A felony: 6 years; Class B felony: 6 years; Theft involving misappropriation of property or any offense involving fraud or breach of fiduciary duty: 1 year after discovery 1 year
New Jersey N.J. Stat. Ann. 2C:1-6 No statute of limitations: murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, terrorism, widespread injury or damage; Criminal sexual contact or endangering welfare of child with victim under 18: within 5 years after victim turns 18 or 2 years of discovery of offense by victim, whichever is later Disorderly offense or petty disorderly offense: 1 year
New Mexico N.M. Stat. Ann. 30-1-8 et seq. Capital felony and 1st degree violent felony: no statute of limitations; 2nd degree felony: 6 years; 3rd or 4th degree felony: 5 years 2 years
New York N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law 30.10 Class A felony, 1st degree rape, 1st degree criminal sexual act, 1st degree aggravated sexual abuse, 1st degree course of sexual conduct against a child: no statute of limitations 2 years
North Carolina N.C. Gen. Stat. 15-1 All felonies and all other offenses (including malicious misdemeanors): no statute of limitations Misdemeanors (except malicious misdemeanors); deceit and malicious mischief; and petit larceny where value of property is under $5.00: 2 years
North Dakota N.D. Cent. Code 29-04-01 Murder: no statute of limitations; All other felonies: 3 years 2 years
Ohio Ohio Rev. Code Ann. 2901.13 Murder: no statute of limitations; Felony: six years; Fraud or breach of fiduciary duty: 1 year after discovery 2 years
Oklahoma 22 Okl.St.Ann. § 151-153 Bribery; embezzlement of public money, bonds, securities: 7 years; Embezzlement or misappropriation of public money, bonds, securities: 5 years; Rape or forcible sodomy; sodomy; lewd or indecent acts against children: 12 years 3 years
Oregon Or. Rev. Stat. § § 131.125, 131.135, 131.145, 131.155 Aggravated murder, murder, attempted murder or aggravated murder, conspiracy or solicitation to commit aggravated murder or murder or any degree of manslaughter: no limit Sexual abuse in the third degree, exhibiting an obscene performance to a minor, displaying obscene materials to minors: within four years after the commission of the crime; Other misdemeanors: two years
Pennsylvania Pa. Consol. Stat § 5551-5554 Murder, voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy to commit murder or solicitation to commit murder if a murder results, any felony in connection with a murder of the first or second degree, vehicular homicide, aggravated assault against a law enforcement officer: no limit 2 years
Rhode Island R.I. Gen. Laws § § 12-3-10, 12-12-17, 12-12-18 Treason against the state, any homicide, arson, first degree arson, second degree arson, third degree arson, burglary, counterfeiting, forgery, robbery, rape, first degree sexual assault, first degree child molestation sexual assault: no limit 3 years
South Carolina no overarching criminal statutes of limitations, and few statutes of limitations for individual offenses; most crimes, offenders may be prosecuted no matter how much time has lapsed since the incident.
South Dakota S.D. Codified Laws § 23A-42-1, et seq. Class A, Class B, or Class C felonies: no limit within 7 years
Tennessee Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-2-101, et seq. Class A felony: within 15 years; Class B felony: within eight years; Class C or Class D felony: within four years with a few exceptions: within 12 months
Texas Tex.Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art 12.01 et seq. Murder and manslaughter, certain offenses related to sexual assault or aggravated sexual assault, offenses against young children, leaving the scene of an accident which resulted in death, trafficking of persons: no limit within 2 years
Utah Utah Code Ann. § 76-1-301 et seq. Capital felonies, aggravated murder; murder; manslaughter; child abuse homicide; aggravated kidnapping; child kidnapping; rape; rape of a child; object rape; object rape of a child; forcible sodomy; sodomy on a child: none within 2 years
Vermont Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13 § 4501 et seq. Aggravated sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault of a child, human trafficking, aggravated human trafficking, murder, arson causing death, kidnapping: no limit within 3 years
Virginia Va. Code Ann. § 19.2-8 et seq. Murder or manslaughter: no limits; Practicing law without being authorized or licensed: within two years of the discovery of the offense Petit larceny: within 5 years; all others: within 1 year
Washington Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.04.080 Murder, homicide by abuse, arson if a death results, vehicular homicide, vehicular assault if a death results, hit-and-run injury-accident if a death results: no limit; Rape (if reported to a law enforcement agency within one year of its commission and victim was 14 years old or older): within 10 years Gross misdemeanors: within 2 years; all others: within 1 year
West Virginia W. Va. Code § 61-11-9 Committing or procuring another person to commit perjury: within 3 years within 1 year
Wisconsin Wis. Stat. § 939.74 with a few exceptions: within 6 years with a few exceptions: within three years
Wyoming there are no overarching criminal statutes of limitations

This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.

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