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Statute of Limitations for State and Federal Crimes

In federal criminal law, Title 18 U.S.C. 3282 states, “except as otherwise expressly provided by law, no person shall be prosecuted . . . for any offense, not capital, unless the indictment is found . . . is instituted within five years next after such offense shall have been committed.”

This passage is widely regarded as the federal statute of limitations. In this article, I will discuss the statute of limitation in depth, its enforcement in federal law, and how a defendant can utilize it when charged with a criminal offense. 

Definition of Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations is a deadline for the government to begin a formal prosecution. In federal criminal offenses, charges must be issued no later than five years after committing the crime. Any action after that prescribed period brought by prosecutors may be subject to dismissal. 

Brief History of the Statute of Limitations

Athens of ancient Greece is the site of the first democracy in the world. The systems and ideas created in its governance have served as the basis for some modern legal practices, especially the concept of written law. The Athenian code had a five-year statute of limitations for any criminal offense, with the only exception being murder. The ancient Roman Empire adopted these laws, which were then applied (with some differences) in the various Roman territories and provinces. 

The English Parliament in the 17th century codified the statute of limitations into common law, on which the U.S. largely based its conceptual legal framework. 

What is the Purpose of a Statute of Limitation?

Statutes of limitations apply to federal criminal charges for several reasons. 

Preservation of evidence regarding prosecution

Time can have detrimental effects on evidence. Witness testimonies may become unreliable — if witnesses can be found at all. Physical evidence may degrade over time. The memory of the alleged offense may fade. It becomes difficult to bring a satisfactory case to court when the passage of time has potentially tainted the evidence. 

Preservation of evidence regarding defense

Similarly, defendants may have difficulty mounting a fair defense years after the fact, and the statute of limitations addresses this issue. It also provides a certain degree of security as the potential accused will not have to live indefinitely with the threat of prosecution (except for specific crimes.) 

Encouraging prompt action

The criminal statute of limitations creates a sense of urgency for matters to be brought to court expeditiously. This can lead to a marked increase in efficiency for the U.S. legal system, allowing adjudication in a timely manner. 

Exemption to the Statute of Limitations for Federal Crimes

The statute of limitations on federal crimes is subject to extension in different circumstances, depending on the type and severity of the crime. 

  • Federal prosecutors can reopen for a period of six calendar months a dismissed case after the statute of limitations has run. Failure to do so would bar prosecutors from pursuing further legal action.  
  • The statute of limitation may be suspended in the event that the prosecution is required to obtain evidence from a foreign country, subject to the approval of the court. In this case, the duration can be extended for an additional three years
  • Issues with the investigation can warrant the extension of the statute of limitations. 
  • The theft of major artwork can be charged within a 20-year period.
  • “Tolling” the statute of limitations is the term used when the countdown is paused. There are several reasons to “toll” the statute of limitations:
    • The accused was a minor during the crime;
    • The accused is in prison during the five-year limit;
    • The accused filed for bankruptcy;
    • The accused is not within the jurisdiction of the prosecuting party; and
    • The accused had initially presented himself or herself to court but has since gone into hiding and become a fugitive from justice.
  • Some jurisdictions do not have a statute of limitations for specific offenses. Treason, sex offenses against minors, and certain terrorism offenses may be prosecuted decades later since these types of violent crimes have no statute of limitations.
  • Homicide charges often have no statute of limitations. This includes civil rights offenses that result in the death of other individuals or the murder of foreign officials, members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court, federal judges, and federal law enforcement officers. Similarly, many state jurisdictions also often have no statute of limitations for homicide charges.
  • Additionally, state laws can indicate their own statute of limitations for different offenses. Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina do not have statutes of limitations for felony charges. Similarly, California does not enforce a statute of limitations provision for public funds embezzlement. 
  • Several types of crimes can be brought into prosecution longer than the general limit of five years. Immigration offenses involving submitting fraudulent documents, falsifying information on official passport forms, altering or mutilating passports, obtaining falsified citizenship documents, and other related charges may be subject to prosecution within 10 years. 
  • Bank-related and financial offenses are covered within 10 years. These include bank, mail, and wire fraud, falsifying bank records, submitting false statements, overvaluing assets, theft by bank employees, and other similar offenses. 
  • Drug trafficking and conspiracy to defraud the United States also have different statutes of limitations. 

Federal Laws that Address Statutes of Limitations for Different Types of Offenses

As mentioned previously, Title 18 U.S.C. 3282 is not the only law that covers the statute of limitations. Below is the pertinent language some notable exceptions from the five-year statute: 

18 USC 3281: Capital murder

“An indictment for any offense punishable by death may be found at any time without limitation.”

18 USC 3286: Terrorism

Eight-Year Limitation: “Notwithstanding section 3282, no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any noncapital offense involving a violation of any provision listed in section 2332b(g)(5)(B), or a violation of section 112, 351(e), 1361, or 1751(e) of this title, or section 46504, 46505, or 46506 of title 49, unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within 8 years after the offense was committed. Notwithstanding the preceding sentence, offenses listed in section 3295 are subject to the statute of limitations set forth in that section.”

No Limitation: “Notwithstanding any other law, an indictment may be found or an information instituted at any time without limitation for any offense listed in section 2332b(g)(5)(B), if the commission of such offense resulted in, or created a forseeable risk of, death or serious bodily injury to another person.”

18 U.S.C 3283: Offenses against children: 

“No statute of limitations that would otherwise preclude prosecution for an offense involving the sexual or physical abuse, or kidnaping, of a child under the age of 18 years shall preclude such prosecution during the life of the child, or for ten years after the offense, whichever is longer.”

18 USC 1344: Suspension of limitations to permit the United States to obtain foreign evidence;


(1)Upon application of the United States, filed before return of an indictment, indicating that evidence of an offense is in a foreign country, the district court before which a grand jury is impaneled to investigate the offense shall suspend the running of the statute of limitations for the offense if the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that an official request has been made for such evidence and that it reasonably appears, or reasonably appeared at the time the request was made, that such evidence is, or was, in such foreign country.

(2)The court shall rule upon such application not later than thirty days after the filing of the application.”

“(b)Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section, a period of suspension under this section shall begin on the date on which the official request is made and end on the date on which the foreign court or authority takes final action on the request.

“(c)The total of all periods of suspension under this section with respect to an offense—

(1)shall not exceed three years; and

(2)shall not extend a period within which a criminal case must be initiated for more than six months if all foreign authorities take final action before such period would expire without regard to this section.”

“(d)As used in this section, the term “official request” means a letter rogatory, a request under a treaty or convention, or any other request for evidence made by a court of the United States or an authority of the United States having criminal law enforcement responsibility, to a court or other authority of a foreign country.”

Theft of major artwork: 18 U.S.C. 3294

“No person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for a violation of or conspiracy to violate section 668 unless the indictment is returned or the information is filed within 20 years after the commission of the offense.”

How Can the Statute of Limitation Be Used in Criminal Defense?

It is a common misconception that the government can no longer file criminal charges once the statute of limitations has passed. That is not the case. 

Federal or state prosecutors are within their power to launch investigations and initiate criminal actions against individuals although the applicable period of the statute of limitations has passed from the commission of the crime. That means the state or federal government can still require individuals to undergo stressful, resource-heavy legal proceedings despite the violation in question being five years in the past. 

As usual for criminal defense practice, the attorney representing the defendant must present the statute of limitation issue before the trial begins. Instances of failure to raise this concern before trial may lead to the assumption that the defendant has waived his or her right to use the statute of limitations as a defense. Therefore, it is imperative that defendants and criminal defense attorneys raise the issue and move to dismiss the indictment on a timely basis. 

Contact the Serafini Law Office for any concerns regarding the statute of limitations

Richard Serafini has over 40 years of experience in criminal defense. He focuses on areas of white-collar crime, federal charges, and regulatory laws under government bodies like the SEC. He is uniquely qualified to handle cases involving the statute of limitations. 

His experience as a federal prosecutor gives him valuable insight into how the federal and state governments craft their cases, which he can use to build the best defense strategy for every circumstance.  

Our law firm currently offers legal services to the following cities and states: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York. 

Contact us at (754) 223-4718 for a free consultation. 

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