What if I just carve a new statute?
December 8, 2011 7:57 AM   Subscribe

I read this story about a rather proficient area bank robber who apparently is off the hook as of midnight last night because the five year statute of limitations on robbery has expired. Is he really free?

What if he contacts the local media tomorrow and boasts that he was the guy and boy is he relieved to finally get this off his chest? (I realize that in all likelihood the perpetrator is either dead or incarcerated; this is just a hypothetical.) Can he be charged with something else? Surely there are loopholes that a savvy DA can make use of. This wiki article about "tolling" a statute of limitations is unclear to me.

Also, is the five year statute of limitations a federal mandate? In the book and subsequent film, A Simple Plan, *SPOILERS* couldn't the protagonist and his wife have just waited a few years before using the money? Surely the FBI wouldn't keep tabs on marked bill when they are tied to a case that cannot be tried.
posted by Terminal Verbosity to Law & Government (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A 'related article' link has this towards the end:

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, the office that would bring the charges, declined to comment about any legal loopholes that might exist that would allow a man to be charged after the statute expires.

Law experts say there are ways, but generally it requires knowing a criminal's identity.

If authorities know the identity and issue an arrest warrant, the warrant can be valid beyond the statute's expiration date if it can be proved that the criminal has left the jurisdiction where the crimes were committed, said Leonard Cavise, a professor of law at DePaul University's College of Law.

posted by jquinby at 8:04 AM on December 8, 2011

Probably a state-law issue.

In Texas there are exceptions and the statute is "tolled"--think of hitting the pause button on a timer set at five years from the date of the offense--if the accused isn't in the state. But the guy has to be accused first.
posted by resurrexit at 8:07 AM on December 8, 2011

As the Bernie Fine case shows, it's still possible to get slapped with a civil suit even when the statute of limitations has expired so it's not like he's getting off unscathed. The standard of proof for civil cases is also much less stringent than in criminal cases (see OJ Simpson) so they're more likely to lose although civil penalties are usually involve fines rather than incarceration.
posted by tommasz at 8:07 AM on December 8, 2011

He'll be guilty of federal tax evasion and money laundering statutes as well, most likely.
posted by empath at 8:15 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know about loopholes, but there's a lot of problems with the statute of limitations expiring for sexual assault cases before the evidence is even processed.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:43 AM on December 8, 2011

Maybe there are gun charges they can bring against him, since the wikipedia article on him says he was armed during the robberies.
posted by puritycontrol at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2011

Best answer: The running of the applicable statute of limitations is a complete bar to prosecution, criminal or civil, though there are likely to be different criminal and civil statutes of limitations. So, for example, in Indiana the criminal statute of limitations for most felonies is five years, while misdemeanors is only two, and the most serious felonies (basically murder) don't have a statute of limitations at all. But the civil statute of limitations is anywhere from two years for bodily injury and property damage, six years for accounts not in writing, and ten years for written contracts. So it really depends on the nature of the offense.

Under Indiana law then, it would seem not only that the person has avoided criminal liability (bank robbery is a felony, so five years) but civil liability as well (robbery is property damage, so two years). Unless he killed someone during the robbery, he would have effectively gotten away with it. If the law is even remotely similar in Illinois (and I'm pretty sure it is), that'd be true there too.

Here's the thing though: as mentioned, the expiration of the period of limitations is a complete bar to prosecution. As in a defendant who has committed a crime or acted tortiously long enough ago that the statutes of limitations have fun can file a motion to dismiss the case against him, and this motion will almost certainly be granted.

A statute of limitations "tolls" when something happens to effectively "pause" its running. This can be a variety of things, all described in the relevant statutes. Indiana has a statute which tolls the period of limitation if the defendant has actively concealed his actions. The period will begin to run once the potential plaintiff learns of it. There's also a provision for tolling the statute if the defendant isn't in the state.

But here's the thing: it would seem that the characters in A Simple Plan may well have been able to avoid the robbery charges, etc. by waiting out the statute. But they killed a guy in the getting of the money, and there's no statute of limitations on murder. So even if they can get away with the charges related to the money, they still go down for the homicide. So no one can ever find out about it if they want to stay free.

As to whether statutes of limitations are federally mandated, that's sort of a confused question. There are definitely federal statutes of limitations for federal crimes. But the feds can't select or direct state statutes, and most crimes aren't federal ones. On the other hand, a state which decided to eliminate all statutes of limitations--or even just seriously muck about with them--might well face a constitutional challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. One of the theories behind having statutes of limitations at all is that if there wasn't one, the state or a civil plaintiff could simply collect the evidence they needed to prevail, wait five or ten years, for the evidence the defendant needs to be lost, and then file their case. This is manifestly unfair, and a good reason to think that the Supreme Court wouldn't permit the complete elimination of statutes of limitations for anything but the most serious felonies.
posted by valkyryn at 9:20 AM on December 8, 2011

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