How does the statute of limitations work?
November 8, 2013 2:03 PM   Subscribe

What if the date a crime was committed is unknown?

Pretend it can be shown that a crime was committed, but not when it was committed. Maybe someone stole something from a seldom-visited storage unit at an unknown time since the last (years ago) visit, or photographic evidence was discovered depicting drug usage but not being easily dated.

Assume it can be shown that a crime did happen, and a suspect is known, and a prosecutor is willing to pursue the case, but there's no evidence one way or another whether it was long enough ago for the statue of limitations to expire. What would happen in court? Would such a case even go to court?

This is just a legal curiosity I thought of in the course of reading about something else, and I'm curious to know what could happen.
posted by tylerkaraszewski to Law & Government (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
looks like its an affirmative defense, meaning the defense has to prove it, probably by a preponderance of the evidence or by clear and convincing evidence.
posted by jpe at 2:16 PM on November 8, 2013

Statues of limitation are created (as you would expect) by statute, so how they are calculated depends on the words of the statute. Some run from the event, some from the discovery of the event, some from the time the event reasonable could have been discovered, etc.

So, for example, in New York, N.Y. CPL. LAW ยง 30.10 requires that a prosecution for theft take place within either 2 or 5 years of the "commission thereof" (depending on the seriousness of the theft). Generally speaking, the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, which means that the party asserting it (here, the defendant) must prove the facts underlying it. So assuming the prosecution can make out its initial case and secure an indictment, it would be up to the defendant to bring forth evidence that the crime occurred too long ago to be prosecuted.

If, on the other hand, the defendant was accused not of stealing from a seldom-visited storage unit, but of skimming from a carelessly monitored trust fund for which he was the trustee, the case would be different. Such a prosecution is still for larceny, but the statute requires that it be commenced "within one year after the facts constituting such offense are discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have been discovered by the aggrieved party or by a person under a legal duty to represent him who is not himself implicated in the commission of the offense." So in that case it doesn't matter when the crime occurred, it matters when it was (or could have been) discovered.

So... It's complicated? IAAL. IANYL. IANACriminalL
posted by The Bellman at 2:23 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are also due process considerations to contend with. The 14th and 5th amendments require the government to give you a notice and a hearing if it's going to take away your life, liberty, or property, and a criminal prosecution seeks to limit your liberty. So you get notice and a hearing.

In order to be sufficient, the notice needs to inform you of the charges against you, including what you allegedly did wrong and approximately when you did it. Without that information, you can't marshal facts in your defense, like alibi information etc.

BUT the courts sometimes give prosecutors some slack when it comes to these sorts of things, especially in arenas like child abuse, when it can be hard to pin down specific dates. For example:

"This Court and numerous others have found that fairly large time windows in the context of child abuse prosecutions are not in conflict with constitutional notice requirements. See Isaac v. Grider, 2000 WL 571959 at *5 (four months); Madden v. Tate, 1987 WL 44909, at *1-*3 (6th Cir.1987) (six months); see also Fawcett v. Bablitch, 962 F.2d 617, 618-19 (7th Cir.1992) (six months); Hunter v. New Mexico, 916 F.2d 595, 600 (10th Cir.1990) (three years); Parks v. Hargett, 1999 WL 157431, at *4 (10th Cir.1999) (seventeen months). Certainly, prosecutors should be as specific as possible in delineating the dates and times of abuse offenses, but we must acknowledge the reality of situations where young child victims are involved. The Ohio Court of Appeals found that there was no evidence the state had more specific information regarding the time period of the abuse. Valentine's claims regarding the lack of time- and date-specific counts therefore fail."

Valentine v. Konteh, 395 F.3d 626, 632 (6th Cir. 2005)
posted by craven_morhead at 2:33 PM on November 8, 2013

It depends on the jurisdiction, but often there will be some version of the discovery rule, which tolls the statute of limitations until the crime could reasonably be discovered.

Consider, though, that while your hypotheticals are interesting, it's hard to follow them through to a hypothetical trial where the only evidence is stuff missing from a storage space or a photograph (which itself would be hearsay). In order for a crime to be prosecuted with any hope of success, there will have to be other physical or strong circumstantial evidence (witnesses, other documents, fingerprints on a crack pipe, etc.) and at some point the prosecution will be able to put a date on the crime. If they can't, it probably means there isn't enough evidence to find the culprit or take him to trial.
posted by payoto at 2:34 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the clock would start ticking from the date the crime was discovered.
posted by mibo at 2:36 PM on November 8, 2013

Yeah, the clock would start ticking from the date the crime was discovered.
posted by mibo at 2:36 PM on November 8
[+] [!]

This is not true. Maybe there are some states (or Anglo-American legal systems) where it's true, but show us some legal authority before you make dubious blanket statements like this.
posted by jayder at 3:31 PM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a hard question because the answer depends on the crime at issue and the state.

Criminal statute of limitations, in general, bar prosecution at all once the limitation period has passed, even if the crime is discovered later. However, the legislature in a state/other jurisdiction can alter this in a couple of ways. First, the legislature can impose a really long or no statute of limitations at all for a crime -- e.g. in some places there is no statue of limitations for murder. Second, the legislature can include a "discovery rule" in the limitations period, to run the statute from the time the crime is discovered.

So, perhaps refine your question to specify a crime and a jurisdiction?
posted by bearwife at 4:05 PM on November 8, 2013

Yes, you'd have to narrow it down to specifics if you were, say, writing a legal thriller and the plot hinged on this point. But generally the statute starts running either from when the crime was committed OR from when it was discovered OR from when reasonably should have been discovered. (I bet there's state case law on how recently you have to have checked the locked shed full of gold on your remote property to establish a "reasonably should have known" time.)

The statute may "pause" for various reasons -- you fled the state, some other legal proceeding takes precedence, etc. The time period is longer on more serious crimes and shorter on minor ones; in general it's longer on crimes against the person (assault, rape, murder) than on crimes against property (but not always). Many states have no statute of limitations for murder, rape, arson, and a few other really serious crimes.

In the case of crimes against a minor (usually when we're talking sexual abuse), the statute sometimes does not START running until the minor reaches majority, so that the victim has the full time period in which to press charges AFTER they're an adult.

This has a (sort-of hard to read) summary of state criminal statutes of limitations for various crimes and their exceptions; you can get an idea of how diverse they are. Here's California. There are also statutes of limitations for torts and contract violations (examples).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:27 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

It depends. There is no way to give a single answer to your question. Look to the statute which creates the SOL. Also be aware that SOLs can often be "tolled", i.e. certain conditions may stop the clock.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:00 PM on November 8, 2013

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