What Is the Statute of Limitations for Federal Crimes?
When a federal crime allegedly occurs, the Department of Justice (DOJ) normally has a specific amount of time to prosecute the case, which is called the “statute of limitations.” Simply put, federal prosecutors have to file charges within a certain time frame, depending on the type of crime.
In other words, a statute of limitations (SOL) is a law that limits the amount of time someone can be charged with a crime, regardless of whether they committed it or not.
In federal criminal cases, the SOL begins when the crime allegedly occurred or was discovered. If the time expires for that offense, the prosecutor can no longer file criminal charges against the accused person. Some crimes, however, have no statutes of limitations, such as murder.
The SOL on federal crimes is designed to protect a potential defendant. The primary purpose is to prevent defendants from having to challenge a federal prosecutor's criminal charges from so long ago that they can't possibly build an effective defense strategy.
Over time, evidence can be lost, witnesses forget details and possible alibis can no longer be located. Also, the SOL can prevent a defendant from constantly being harassed by federal agents for an alleged crime that occurred many years ago.
Additionally, having a time limit in place to indict somebody also gives federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors an incentive to work in a timely manner to make progress on a criminal case investigation.
18 U.S.C. 3282 says, “Except as otherwise expressly provided by law, no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense, not capital unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within five years next after such offense shall have been committed.”
Notably, someone can be charged at the state and federal level for the same crimes. Sometimes, a state will start the investigation, and then federal prosecutors will take it over.
SOL Quick Facts
- The United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a speedy trial when they are accused of a crime.
- Statute of limitations is a legal rule that sets a specific time limit for prosecuting a crime or suing in a civil action.
- The time window generally starts from the point at which the alleged crime was committed or when it was discovered.
- Prosecutors must file formal official charges within the time window established by the statute of limitations or be barred from doing so.
- Many federal statutes provide for different statutes of limitations that are longer than the general limit of five years.
- There are some situations where the five-year statute of limitations can be extended or suspended, such as someone fleeing to avoid prosecution.
- The statute of limitation could be suspended in cases involving DNA evidence until a DNA match is made.
- The SOL may be extended or suspended if prosecutors need proof from a foreign country.
- The SOL is an affirmative defense, meaning the defense must move to dismiss the indictment because the time has expired.
- If the defense fails to raise the SOL issue before or during the trial, the defense is waived, and the conviction could stand.
What Are the Exceptions to the Five-Year SOL?
As noted, by default, the statute of limitations for non-capital federal offenses is five years from when the alleged crime was committed. This is defined under U.S. Code Title 18 Section 3282 and includes most non-violent crimes.
The definition includes language that says, “except as otherwise expressly provided by law,” which is significant because there are exceptions. Simply put, there are certain federal crimes where the SOL is longer than the standard five years.
These extended time frames typically exist because of the severity of the crime or because federal prosecutors need more time to build their case. Some of the most common federal offenses with a longer SOL include the following:
- 26 U.S.C. 7201 and 7203 - tax evasion, failure to file a tax return is six years;
- 18 U.S.C. 1031 - major fraud against the federal government that exceeds $1 million is seven years;
- 18 U.S.C. 37 - violence at an international airport or interfering with a flight crew is eight years;
- 18 U.S.C. 1341 and 18 U.S.C. 1343 - mail and wire fraud is ten years;
- 18 U.S.C. 1344 - bank fraud is ten years;
- 18 U.S.C. 371 - conspiracy to commit a federal crime is ten years;
- 18 U.S.C. 657 - embezzling from a financial institution is ten years;
- 18 U.S.C. 1005 -falsify bank records is ten years;
- 18 U.S.C. 81 - arson is ten years;
- Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) is ten years;
Which Federal Crimes Have No Statute of Limitations?
Certain serious or violent federal crimes have no statute of limitations, such as the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 3281 - any federal capital offense with the death penalty attached, such as murder or murder during a drug trafficking crime;
- 18 U.S.C. 3286 – acts of terrorism resulting in death or serious bodily injury;
- 18 U.S.C. 3283 - federal sex crimes when the victim is a minor
What is an Affirmative Defense?
As discussed above, the SOL does not mean prosecutors can't file charges against you. Rather, it means you can use it as an affirmative defense to challenge the delay and request a case dismissal.
Perhaps the case had been pending for years, evidence was lost, and witnesses were no longer available to testify. To use the statute of limitations on your behalf, your federal criminal defense lawyer must make a claim before the trial begins that the SOL expired.
They will be required to show the court that the prosecution filed their criminal complaint after the statute of limitations expired.
Lawyers who defend federal offenses must have advanced legal knowledge and a commitment to protect their client's rights. We have decades of experience and a track record of success. Contact our law firm for a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.