The U.S. Constitution guarantees U.S. citizens the right to a “speedy trial” when accused of a crime. This right exists for two reasons.
First, since evidence and memory of events tend to fade over time, it is the best way to ensure that a trial is fair. Second, it prevents the government from harassing an accused party over an alleged crime indefinitely.
To protect the right to a speedy trial, state and federal governments have established “statutes of limitations”—windows of time to bring a court action after an alleged offense.
In other words, the statute of limitations (SOL) for any crime is a law that explicitly defines a deadline before the federal government must begin a formal prosecution, or they will be barred forever from doing so.
For federal crimes committed within the United States, the statute of limitations is defined under 18 U.S.C. § 3282. This statute says the SOL is five years “except as otherwise expressly provided by law.”
Simply put, for someone to be criminally charged for a federal offense, the indictment must be issued no later than five years from the date the alleged crime was committed.
However, many federal statutes expressly provide for different statutes of limitations that are longer than the general limit of five years.
The SOL is an affirmative defense, which means the defense must raise the issue and move to dismiss the indictment because the time has expired.
If the defense counsel fails to raise the statute of limitations issue as a defense before or during the trial, the defense is waived, and a conviction could stand. But first, let's look at the various statutes of limitation on federal crimes in particular.
What Does the Law Say?
As noted, the statute of limitations is a legal rule that sets a specific time limit for prosecuting someone for a crime, or suing someone, in the case of civil actions like personal injury cases.
The time window generally begins from the point at which the alleged crime was committed.
For those suspected or accused of federal crimes, prosecutors must bring official charges within the time window established by the statute of limitations; otherwise, the defendant can get the charges dismissed.
Understanding how long this period lasts and how it can be used as an affirmative defense can be incredibly helpful for anyone charged with a federal crime.
The Standard Federal Statute of Limitations
By default, the statute of limitations for non-capital federal crimes is five years from when the alleged crime was committed as defined under U.S. Code Title 18 Section 3282.
This extends to most non-violent federal offenses and any offense for which a different time frame has not been identified.
18 U.S.C. 3282 reads explicitly, “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.”
The phrase “except as otherwise expressly provided by law” is significant because there are exceptions, as with any rule.
In other words, there are certain federal crimes for which there is a specific statute of limitations extending longer than five years, certain instances in which the time window may be suspended or stretched, and certain severe crimes for which there is no statute of limitations.
Subsection (b) DNA Profile Indictment says, in general, “In any indictment for an offense under chapter 109A for which the identity of the accused is unknown, it shall be sufficient to describe the accused as an individual whose name is unknown, but who has a particular DNA profile.”
The term “DNA profile” means a set of DNA identification characteristics.
What Federal Crimes Have Longer Statute of Limitations?
Federal law has established extended time windows for prosecuting certain specific offenses.
These more extended time frames may exist either because of the severity of the crime or because federal prosecutors need more time to build their cases in these instances.
The list of exceptions is too long to cover all of them here, but some common examples of crimes with longer statutes of limitations include:
- Federal tax evasion (26 U.S.C. 7201): six years;
- Failure to file a tax return (26 U.S.C. 7203): six years;
- Major fraud against the federal government totaling $1 million or more (18 U.S.C. 1031): seven years;
- Mail fraud (18 U.S.C. 1341): ten years;
- Wire fraud (18 U.S.C. 1343): ten years;
- Bank fraud (18 U.S.C. 1344): ten years;
- Conspiracy to commit a federal crime (18 U.S.C. 371): ten years;
- Non-violent violations of certain federal terrorism laws: eight years;
- Embezzling from a federal financial institution (18 U.S.C. 657): ten years;
- Receiving gifts for loans (18 U.S.C. 215): ten years;
- Falsify bank records (18 U.S.C. 1005): ten years;
- Immigration crimes: ten years;
- Arson (18 U.S.C. 81): ten years;
- Theft of major artwork (18 U.S.C. 3294): 20 years.
Extension or Suspension of SOL
There are situations where the five-year statute of limitations can be extended or suspended.
For example, if a defendant flees to avoid prosecution, the clock may be stopped until that person is apprehended or returns to U.S. jurisdiction.
The period may be suspended in cases involving DNA evidence until a DNA match is made. Additionally, the statute of limitations may be extended in cases where prosecutors need proof from a foreign country.
What Federal Crimes Have No Statute of Limitations?
Certain serious or violent federal offenses can be prosecuted at any time and have no statute of limitations. These include:
- Any federal “capital” offense (18 U.S.C. 3281) - meaning an offense with the death penalty attached;
- Any act of terrorism (18 U.S.C. 3286) that results in death or serious bodily injury
- Federal sex crimes (18 U.S.C. 3283) in which the victim is a minor
The Statute of Limitations as an Affirmative Defense
As noted, the statute of limitations does not mean prosecutors may not bring charges against you after the expiration.
They can do so, and they have done so. However, it does mean that you can use the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense to challenge the prosecution's delay and move for a dismissal.
This is especially useful when a case has been pending for years, evidence has been lost or destroyed, or witnesses are no longer available to testify.
To use the statute of limitations as a defense, your attorney must do the following:
- Make a claim before the trial begins that the statute of limitations for that crime has expired. After the trial starts, the claim may not be upheld.
- Demonstrate that the prosecution filed their criminal complaint after the statute of limitations had expired. In other words, the time between filing the complaint and when the alleged crime occurred is longer than the law allows.
Practicing federal criminal defense law requires advanced legal knowledge.
It also requires a commitment to protect the rights of anyone accused of a crime by the federal government.
We have decades of experience and know how to identify any issues in a federal indictment, including the expiration of a statute of limitation.
Legal rules like the statute of limitation demonstrate how many defenses and strategies experienced attorneys consider on behalf of their clients.
You can contact us for an initial case examination by phone or use the contact form. We offer legal representation on federal criminal matters across the United States. Contact us to consult with our federal criminal defense attorneys. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.