Think of a statute of limitations as a window of time in which to bring a lawsuit. These windows vary in size from state to state and from situation to situation, but the concept is the same: to get legal issues resolved while they are still "fresh." That is, to bring cases to trial within a reasonable time after the underlying event while witness recollections are still sharp and evidence is available.
In Colorado, like in most states, there are statutes of limitations on the books for every type of charge, civil and criminal, from shoplifting to armed robbery. Yes, there is a statute of limitations for traffic tickets too, described in Section 16-5-401 of the state code.
Purpose of a Statute of Limitations
A Colorado statute is a law, usually one that has been enacted by the Colorado state legislature and signed by the governor. A statute of limitations is a type of law that specifies the time limits for bringing a lawsuit. After the period of the statute has passed, a lawsuit cannot be filed against the person over the incident.
Statutes of limitations are important for justice to be served. If anyone could sue, or the state could bring criminal charges, a decade or two after an accident, event or crime, evidence and witness recollections could be degraded in quality by the passage of time. When it comes to the most serious crimes, like murder, a Colorado prosecutor can bring criminal charges no matter how long after the event. But lesser crimes and civil offenses must be brought within the statutory window.
Note that Colorado state law extends the statute of limitations in certain situations. For example, if the accused leaves the state, the limitations period does not start until they return to Colorado.
Misdemeanors vs. Felonies
Colorado classifies crimes into two categories: felonies, the more serious offenses that can be punished by more than a year in prison, and misdemeanors, the less serious offenses that are punishable by a year or less of jail time. The Colorado law for criminal statutes of limitations is found at CRS Section 16-5-401.
Generally, felonies will have longer statutes of limitations. As a rule of thumb, the more serious the crime in Colorado, the longer the time period in which prosecutors have to file charges. Some very serious crimes, including murder, kidnapping, treason and certain sexual assault crimes have no limitations period; they can brought at any time.
Misdemeanors are the less serious crimes and the statutes of limitations in Colorado for misdemeanors are shorter. Generally, these charges must be brought within no more than 18 months after the event. However, misdemeanor sexual abuse charges have significantly longer statutes of limitations.
Statute of Limitations for Motor Vehicle Tickets
Driving offenses in Colorado result in misdemeanor charges. Some are Class 1 and others are Class 2 misdemeanor traffic offenses. Class 1 misdemeanor traffic offenses are the more serious of the two. Offenses include driving over the speed limit by 25 mph or more in a construction zone and careless driving resulting in bodily injury. Those found guilty can be sentenced to between 10 days and 12 months in jail and/or $300 to $1,000 in fines. These traffic offenses carry a one-year statute of limitations.
Class 2 misdemeanor traffic offenses, like careless driving that does not result in bodily injury, carry less serious penalties. Someone convicted of these offenses can be sentenced to 10 to 30 days in jail and/or $150 to $300 in fines. Like Class I traffic violations, Class 2 traffic violations also carry a one-year statute of limitations.
Felony Traffic Offenses
Sometimes traffic tickets are issued for more serious offenses. If the underlying offense is a felony, these can be considered felony traffic offenses. The statute of limitations for these types of tickets depends on the underlying offense.
A few examples help explain this: If someone commits vehicular homicide, any citation issued will be for a felony. For example, if reckless driving takes someone's life, the charges against the driver will be vehicular homicide. The statute of limitations on this charge is five years from the date of the incident. If hit and run is involved, the same offense carries a 10-year statute of limitations.
Paying Traffic Tickets
A traffic ticket in Colorado is a citation or a summons issued by law enforcement or police officers to drivers believed to be breaking the law. The ticket itself recites the charges, states the violated statutes and penalties, and the deadlines. Traffic violations can be petty offenses, which are civil, not criminal matters. Otherwise, they are misdemeanors and felonies. Felony violations will usually get summons tickets while misdemeanor violations often get citations.
With traffic citations in Colorado, the driver has the option of paying the ticket rather than showing up in court. There is a sort of "limitations period" on paying as well, since the payment to the Department of Revenue must be postmarked within 20 days of the violation date to prevent it from being sent to court. Paying the penalty constitutes an admission of guilt to the traffic infraction. Anyone wishing to contest the citation should not pay online, but go to traffic court and argue their case.
If a traffic ticket is designated as a summons, it cannot be paid online in Colorado. The driver must go in person to the appropriate court on the date specified. Expect felony traffic tickets to fall into this category. The driver is required to go to court on the date and time specified on the ticket; they cannot simply mail their statements to the court. At the court date, the driver presents their defense and the judge or hearing officer issues a verdict. It is possible to appeal a guilty verdict.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.