What is the Statute of Limitations?

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Definition:

A statute of limitations is a legal time limit, after which someone cannot be sued or brought to trial for an offense that he or she allegedly committed.

🤔 Understanding statutes of limitations

A statute of limitations is a legal time limit to begin civil or criminal court proceedings. The victim of an alleged offense must begin proceedings within this timeframe, which may vary by jurisdiction. Minor infractions have shorter statutes of limitation than more serious ones. Some serious crimes, such as murder, do not have a statute of limitations.

Example

Different crimes have different statutes of limitations. Typically, minor offenses, such as shoplifting, have shorter limitation periods. For instance, in Virginia, the statute of limitations for most misdemeanors or fines is one year. If a year passes from the time that you commit the crime, the state can no longer bring you to trial for it.

Takeaway

A statute of limitations is like a clock in a football game…

A football game lasts for a set amount of time. Once the time expires, the offense can’t start a new play and won’t be able to score any more points. A statute of limitations is similar. Once the time expires, the state can’t bring you to court and try you for a crime, which means you can’t be punished for the crime you committed.

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What is the Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is a limited time period for bringing someone to court. Once the statute of limitations for a crime or civil infraction expires, the state or aggrieved party cannot bring the person who committed that infraction to a court or punish them.

There are many reasons that statutes of limitation exist. One is that memories can fade as time passes after a crime has been committed. A critical part of proving your innocence if you’re accused of a crime is providing an alibi. If someone claims you broke into their house last week, you probably remember what you were doing at the time and could get witness testimony to give you an alibi. If someone accuses you of breaking into their home 15 years ago, it’s much more difficult to remember where you were and prove your innocence. Evidence can also grow stale or disappear as time passes. Many similar factors make trying a case long after the fact difficult.

Statutes of limitation have their origin in Roman law and have evolved over the centuries as society and legal codes evolved.

Different crimes have different statutes of limitation. Minor offenses may have a statute of limitations lasting only a few months to a few years. Major crimes, such as murder, might have no statute of limitations at all. Statutes of limitations can also vary from one jurisdiction to another. A crime that has a four-year time limit in one state might have a time limit of five years in another.

In many cases, the limitations period begins when the person commits an infraction, also called the cause of action. In others, the time limit does not start until the injured party discovers their injury. For example, someone who commits fraud is not safe just because the company failed to recognize the damages for many years. Instead, the timer begins at the point they should have realized the fraud had occurred.

What are examples of a statute of limitations?

In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations varies with the severity of the crime.

For example, the statute of limitations for crimes such as theft or receiving stolen goods is six years. The statute of limitations for robbery is 10 years.

Depending on the extent of the crime, the statute of limitations for assault can be six years, 10 years, or an unlimited amount of time.

In the Commonwealth, manslaughter has a six-year statute of limitations, but there is no time limit to bring charges of murder against someone.

In New York, medical malpractice has a statute of limitations of 30 months. South Carolina sets it at three years from the event or when the malpractice could have been reasonably discovered.

A financial example of a statute of limitations is the amount of time that the IRS has to begin an audit.

The statute of limitations extends to six years if you under-report your income by more than 25%. The six-year statute of limitations also applies if you overstate the basis of assets you sold by more than 25%.

Finally, if you never file a tax return or willingly file a fraudulent return, there is no limitation period. The IRS can bring charges against you at any time.

What are the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit?

Statutes of limitations don’t just apply to criminal cases. They also apply to people who wish to sue someone else.

There are many scenarios where you have the grounds to sue someone. For example, you might want to sue someone who caused personal injury to you or you may sue a doctor for medical malpractice.

Like the statute of limitations for a crime, the statute of limitations for lawsuits forces you to begin proceedings within a set amount of time. You couldn’t sue a doctor for medical malpractice decades after the fact because it would be impossible to prove the malpractice and how it has impacted you. Each state can set its own rule surrounding the statute of limitations on lawsuits.

For example, Virginia sets the statute of limitations for most personal injury and fraud lawsuits at two years. If someone injures you, for example in a car crash for which they were at fault, you must bring them to court within two years of the accident. If you wait longer than that, you cannot sue them anymore. In some situations, the statute of limitations may extend past two years, especially when it is difficult to discover the damage done. The time limit for a medical malpractice suit in Virginia begins at the time the injury is discovered (or should have been reasonably discovered) and runs for one year.

For example, If a doctor leaves a medical instrument in a patient’s body during surgery and they have no way of discovering it, it’s not reasonable to require the patient to begin legal proceedings within two years from the surgery. Instead, the patient has up to a year from the time they discover or should have reasonably discovered what happened.

Most states also make an exception for people under the age of 18 when an injury occurs. Often, minors may not know their legal rights or might rely on their parents to handle legal processes for them. To give minors an opportunity to seek justice, most states do not begin the time limit for a lawsuit until the minor turns 18. Some states, such as Oregon, also provide exceptions for people who have a mental condition that prevents them from understanding their rights or bringing a case to court.

Which crimes have a statute of limitations?

The statute of limitations for crimes varies from state to state. Where one state law might make the statute of limitations for a felony five years, another might set it at 10 years.

Similarly, different states can have, or not have, statutes of limitations for various crimes.

In most cases, the crimes that have statutes of limitations are less severe than offenses that carry heavy sentences, such as murder.

At the federal level, the vast majority of crimes have limits on when the government can bring someone to court. The main category of crimes that do not carry a time limit is capital offenses — those that could involve the death penalty.

Federally, most crimes have a statute of limitations of five years. Some crimes have more extended time limits, including:

  • Theft of artwork: 20 years
  • Arson: 10 years
  • Non-violent terrorist offenses: 8 years
  • Kidnapping or child abuse: The longer of 10 years or the victim’s life

During wartime, the government can suspend the statute of limitations for crimes. If it does so, the time limit expires five years after the end of the war. Other unexpected situations, such as public health emergencies like the outbreak of COVID-19, could also cause the government to suspend the statute of limitations for crimes.

Which crimes don’t have a statute of limitations?

Typically, crimes that don’t have a statute of limitations are incredibly severe crimes that carry heavy punishments.

Each state has the freedom to set its own laws and can determine which crimes have statutes of limitations and which do not. Still, there are many similarities between states. For example, murder has no statute of limitations anywhere in the United States.

At the federal level in the U.S., the primary group of offenses that do not have a statute of limitations are capital offenses. These are crimes that can carry a penalty of death, such as murder, treason, and espionage.

What are the statutes of limitations by state?

Each state has its own laws and can set the statute of limitations for different crimes as it sees fit. If you want to learn more about the statute of limitations for crimes in your state, the best place to start is with your local government. You can find information about different crimes, and the limits placed on prosecuting them by reading your local law codes.

What is time-barred debt?

Time-barred debt is like debt that has a statute of limitations on collecting.

When you get a loan from a bank or other lender, you usually have to make payments against your debt each month. If you don’t make your monthly payment, you go into default. While you can start making payments again, sometimes you forget or simply can’t start making payments.

Often, when a borrower defaults, lenders will sell the bad debt to a collection agency. The agency buys debts at a discount and tries to collect on them to earn a profit. Tactics can range from calling the debtor to suing them in court. However, many types of debt are time-barred, which means that collectors cannot bring you to court after an amount of time has passed.

The statute of limitations for collecting a debt varies between states and with the type of debt. For example, many states set the time limit at 10 years for credit card debt. If you incur some credit card debt and fail to make payments for a decade, a debt collector can’t sue you to force you to repay the debt.

Understanding time-barred debt is necessary because, in some states, making a payment or promising to make a payment can reset the time limit. If that happens, the debt collector could sue you for the full amount of the debt plus penalties and interest.

What are the criticisms of statutes of limitations?

Some critics argue that statutes of limitations are unnecessary or that they hurt society.

One frequent criticism of statutes of limitations is that they can negatively affect victims of certain crimes, such as sexual abuse. Often, it is difficult for victims of crimes like sex offenses to go to the police or begin court proceedings while they deal with the trauma of the crime committed against them. Forcing them to deal with the trauma and begin court proceedings within a certain amount of time can make it more difficult for them to recover — or, alternately lead to criminals never receiving punishment.

Another criticism is that the statutes create an all-or-nothing approach to justice. If new evidence comes to light (such as DNA evidence) that overwhelmingly proves someone’s guilt, the statute of limitations may make it impossible to try them and bring them to justice.

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