Does Filing a Criminal Case Have Statutes of Limitations?
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There is a time limit to when victims and prosecutors can initiate civil cases. However, this time limit, called the statute of limitations, also applies to criminal charges. State and federal laws prohibit prosecutors from charging individuals and organizations with a crime beyond the given timeframe.
Statutes of limitations can differ based on the nature of the crime and the jurisdiction. This variation can make it difficult for people to know if they can still take their issues to court. This short guide outlines all you need to know about this element of the law. After reading, you’ll know when to call your lawyer so you won’t miss the chance to take legal action.
Defining the Criminal Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations dictates the maximum period for prosecutors to file criminal cases. Prosecutors must file lawsuits within a prescribed time, or courts could dismiss them as untimely.
Generally, the clock starts after the date of the offense. However, there can be exceptions to this rule. For example, when the injured party is a child, courts will start the clock when they turn of age.
Statutes of limitations are sometimes controversial. Activists call for their abolishment in certain places where victims cannot bring an offender to justice.
They believe it protects the offenders of serious crimes by preventing victims from speaking out after the deadline. Without the deadline, victims of domestic violence, aggravated sexual assault, sexual abuse, and other sex crimes can file a lawsuit anytime.
However, defenders of the statute of limitations argue this time limit is essential. Read below to know why this criminal law element is crucial for prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers.
Importance of Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations can make victims feel that they are denied justice. However, there are two common-sense reasons why time limits exist.
Preserves facts and evidence
The time limit ensures fair trials without the possibility of using degraded evidence. Impression and DNA evidence are some of the crucial evidence that can deteriorate over time. After the deadline, there can be no prosecution, and the defendant will not face criminal charges.
A statute of limitations also prevents the facts surrounding the case from becoming stale. Think of it this way; you can probably remember what you had for breakfast this morning. However, you may not accurately remember what you had for breakfast on the first day of the month.
The simple facts are crucial, mainly if the evidence relies on the memories of a witness. Over time, memories may fade, and witnesses can pass away or become incapacitated. However, having a time limit ensures the preservation of the facts and evidence surrounding a lawsuit.
Discourages malicious lawsuits
Another reason a statute of limitations is important is that it discourages people from filing malicious lawsuits. The time limit requires prosecutors to pursue cases with reasonable diligence. It prevents people from initiating criminal proceedings against a defendant for harassment purposes.
Exceptions in the Statute of Limitations
The time limit varies significantly depending on the state and the type of crime. Courts are often strict when enforcing these time limits. However, you should know the exceptions to the rule.
Nature of the heinous crime
More serious criminal offenses have no statutes of limitations. Attempted murder, murder, voluntary manslaughter, sex offenses, and other violent crimes also have none in many states.
Murder is even punishable by the death penalty in some states, like Texas. Meanwhile, drug trafficking is considered a capital offense in Florida and Missouri. Florida also considers child abuse involving sexual acts as a capital-degree felony punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Some states, like California, also have no statute of limitations for crimes involving public funds, such as embezzlement. Likewise, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide have no statute of limitations under international law. These laws are mandated by the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Defendant is missing
Another common exception to a statute of limitations is when a defendant is missing or out of state. The court cannot initiate legal proceedings if a party is not in the state where the prosecutor files the case.
The court must serve a defendant with documents related to a lawsuit to sustain a case against that defendant. The defendant also has the right to get help from a criminal defense attorney, a requirement for any legal proceeding.
There can also be cases where a defendant is in the state but chooses to hide from law enforcement agencies. In this scenario, the amount of time the defendant is in hiding will not count toward the statute of limitations period.
The surfacing of the defendant initiates the countdown of the statute of limitations.
The injured party is underage
The statute of limitations may not strictly apply when the injured party was a minor at the time of the crime.
The law recognizes that children cannot evaluate their options well and do not understand that they may sue for injuries. Thus, the law considers the time the injured party spends as a minor when calculating the statute of limitations.
However, once the injured party reaches 18, the clock will start to run. They should reach out to a law firm to get legal advice from lawyers.
For example, a victim of a sexual offense is 16 years old. They can still take legal action after turning 18 since the statute of limitations will only take effect by then.
Another crucial exception to a statute of limitations is when the injured is incapacitated. Their incapacitation can be because of psychiatric issues or other medical reasons.
For example, a person with mental health issues cannot assess their legal options. The court can suspend the statute of limitations of their case.
Moreover, an incarcerated individual may request the suspension of the statute of limitation. They can ask for a suspension for the time they are in jail. The law recognizes that the party may not have the means to collect evidence and file a lawsuit.
In any case, the amount of time an individual spends incapacitated will not count against the limitation period. However, once they regain the capacity, the time will start to run, so it is crucial to get counsel to preserve their rights.
Victims may not know the injury they suffered until the statute of limitation reaches its deadline. Fortunately, parties may file lawsuits after discovering their injuries, even if the time limit runs out.
That said, some states only allow prosecutors a short window during which they can initiate a criminal procedure for later-discovered injuries. However, even if people discover their injuries late, they should still consult with a personal injury lawyer.
Do Not Miss the Chance to Take Legal Action
You can still bring a serious felony offense to court years after the crime occurred. If you or a loved one is the victim of a criminal offense, get legal help as soon as possible. You can still get justice even after you have moved on with your life.
It is crucial to have a knowledgeable attorney on your side who is knowledgeable about criminal statutes of limitations. Consult with a lawyer who can help you understand your legal options.