The Purpose of a Statute of Limitations
The statutes of limitations are restrictions placed on the time frame in which certain crimes can be prosecuted. Though every crime and jurisdiction deals with statutes of limitations in a slightly different way, the core logic of the legal concept remains the same. You should have an understanding of the statutes of limitations if you are facing charges for a crime that you committed in the past.
Meaning and Implication
A statute of limitations dictates when a criminal offense may be prosecuted to ensure that the accused are receiving fair due process. The purpose of limiting the time in which the prosecutors and investigators can prepare their case is to maintain the accuracy of witness testimony and the viability of physical evidence. Statutes of limitations also expedite the trial process, as required by the U.S. Constitution. The general rule of thumb is that more severe crimes, such as those involving extreme violence, will have longer statutes of limitations than less serious offenses. The most serious crimes, like criminal homicide, do not have time frames and can be prosecuted at any time.
Tolling a Statute of Limitations
If you commit a crime with a seven-year statute of limitations, and the state is unable to put together a strong enough case until eight years after the fact, you cannot be convicted of the crime. Regardless of guilt, statutes of limitations keep you safe from prosecution after a certain length of time. There are, however, instances in which the statute of limitations will be suspended, or tolled, and a crime can be prosecuted outside the customary time frame. Tolling the statutes of limitations means that the legal processing time has been stopped and is pending the outcome of an evidentiary test, motion or other justifiable postponement. The length of time it can take to process DNA evidence has become a common reason for tolling. Many jurisdictions have altered their laws to allow for this exception to the rule.
Using the Statute of Limitations as a Defense Strategy
Some states allow a prosecutor to attempt an indictment even if the statute of limitations has run out. If you are being charged with a crime that happened outside the time frame set by the applicable statute of limitations, you can use that statute as part of your criminal defense. The defense has to raise the issue of the statute of limitations, though, as there are few judges who will dismiss a case without it being brought to their attention.