As time goes on, evidence of a crime, memories and potential alibis can fade. As such, it can be difficult to prosecute or defend a case when the alleged crime was committed long ago. Statutes of limitations aim to avoid this problem from happening.
Each crime has a different statute of limitations. Furthermore, different statutes apply to those charged with federal crimes as opposed to California state crimes.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations is a law that determines the amount of time that can pass between the commission of a crime and the beginning of legal proceedings. The statute of limitations for federal crimes in California and other states keeps federal law enforcement from arresting people for crimes that allegedly happened many years ago.
The clock starts on a statute of limitations when a crime is complete. For ongoing crimes, such as conspiracy, the statute of limitations begins when the final affirmative act in the crime happens, rather than the first time someone takes action in the conspiracy.
Law enforcement must file an indictment or information with the court before the statute of limitations expires on a crime. The statute of limitations on federal criminal cases does not apply to some types of crimes, meaning law enforcement can charge suspects of these crimes at any time.
California Versus Federal Crimes
In order to determine the statute of limitations on a specific crime, one must first determine if it is a state or federal offense. Most cases fall under state law, even crimes like murder and robbery. However, a crime might fall under federal jurisdiction if the crime involves:
- Federal land.
- Federal officers.
- Criminal conduct across state lines.
- Crimes against the federal government, such as treason.
- Violations of homeland security.
Some people face charges at both the state and federal levels. If the state of California dismisses the case, the federal government can still charge the person. Furthermore, if the statute of limitations runs out at either level of government, the other level may still be able to charge the person.
Statute of Limitations for Federal Crimes
According to the United States Code 18 Section 3282, the statute of limitations for federal criminal cases is five years unless otherwise stated in the law. However, the law does make several exceptions based on the type of crime or other circumstances.
Federal crimes with longer statutes of limitations include:
- Theft of artwork: 20 years.
- Immigration offenses: 10 years.
- Some crimes against financial institutions: 10 years.
- Arson: 10 years.
- Nonviolent terrorism offenses: 8 years.
- Child abuse or sexual abuse of a child: 10 years or the life of the victim, whichever is longer.
Some federal crimes have no statute of limitations. For example, there is no time limit on prosecuting federal crimes that are punishable by the death penalty, such as murder. The statute of limitations on federal criminal cases also does not apply to crimes such as terrorism that cause death or injury, child abduction and some sex offenses.
Extending the Statute of Limitations
Sometimes the judicial system can extend the statute of limitations beyond its normal limit. For example, if authorities need DNA evidence to charge a person with a federal crime, they may waive the statute of limitations until they get the results of the DNA tests.
The statute of limitations may also be extended if a suspect becomes a fugitive, the suspect hid financial assets during bankruptcy or the case involves fraud during wartime.