After a certain time period has passed, some legal charges can no longer be pursued. This scenario involves the application of a statute of limitations.
It is essentially a law that prevents someone from charging another person for an offense after a specified number of years has gone by.
The purpose behind statutes of limitations
A statute of limitations is mainly for the benefit of defendants. It protects the latter from charges or convictions that no longer have concrete evidence. In such cases, the law presumes that the quality of the evidence has deteriorated to some extent due to the passage of time.
Statutes of limitations trace their origins back to Roman law. This is not much of surprise, since much of the foundation of civil law systems in many countries today draw from Rome’s legal system.
While statutes of limitations are common in civil cases, there are also prescribed time periods for certain crimes. For instance, misdemeanors have a time period of one year to four years. Depending on which state has jurisdiction for an offense, the prescribed time period will differ.
Are there any exemptions?
However, criminal lawyers and plaintiffs pressing charges for felonies like murder usually won’t be inhibited by statutes of limitations. Such serious crimes often do not have a prescriptive period. Thus, a murder charge filed after more than 10 years since the occurrence of the crime will be allowed.
Some states have broader exemptions. In Florida, for example, any felony committed that resulted in the death of a person is not subject to a statute of limitations. In California, crimes that have a death penalty or life imprisonment sentence also don’t expire.
Additionally, there is also the concept of “tolling.” In legal terms, it refers to a situation when a criminal suspect flees from the jurisdiction of the proper state authorities.
When this happens, the running time of the prescriptive period of an offense is put on pause — giving plaintiffs more time to build a case. Tolling also happens when a suspect is proven to have made efforts to conceal a crime.
There are also laws that feature a reasonably long prescriptive period. A good example of this is the recent New York Child Victims Act of 2019, which extended the prescriptive period of offenses related to childhood sexual abuse. The new law empowers child victims to file criminal charges until they reach 28 years old. Additionally, civil lawsuits will be allowed until they reach 55 years old
Previously, victims were only able to criminally prosecute an offender as long as it was within 5 years from the act. For civil cases, the charge had to be made within three years before the victim turned 18 years old.
This was problematic because such crimes are usually committed when the victim is still not capable of processing emotions and exhibiting rationale thought. By the time the five-year prescriptive period lapses, victims are still recovering from the physical and mental abuse, with no charges in sight.
New York’s example goes to show that while statutes of limitations are by default in favor of the suspect or alleged offender, laws will often be amended in order to serve justice.