The statute of limitations defines a time limit within which the prosecution must file criminal charges before they are barred from doing so.
by Paul Bergman J.D., UCLA Law School Professor
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.
|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.