Most people know that a serious crime like murder has no time limit for prosecution. That means that no matter how long ago the crime occurred, someone can be brought to stand trial and be sentenced for murder. Most other crimes, however, even serious felonies like rape and kidnapping, do have to abide by the statute of limitations in the state where the crime occurred. Many people have not paused to consider the reasons why states have these rules about prosecuting crimes. Often, they may only do so when they or a loved one are accused of a crime that took place many years ago. To learn more about the rights of both the accused and the state when it comes to the criminal statutes of limitations, read on.
Why Have Statutes That Limit Prosecution?
The legal concept of limiting legal action to within certain time periods is ancient and has been around, in some shape or fashion, for a very long time. The thinking that prompted the creation of time limits stems from an attempt to make the process more fair to those accused of crimes. You should not have to live in fear your entire life for some criminal act that you may or may not have perpetrated in your teens, for example. As time goes on, crimes not only become more difficult to prove but more difficult for the accused to defend themselves against. After all, being accused of a crime is not the same as being found guilty of that crime and everyone has the right to a fair and just trial process. While murder is the only crime that has no statute of limitations in the United States, the older the homicide is the more difficult it will be to prosecute it. This has prompted the proliferation of "cold case" law enforcement units to address old homicide cases. Here, then, are some common benefits to having a statute of limitations on all but homicide crimes:
1. Protection – Waiting too long to bring charges might cause there to be more victims. For example, law enforcement might be more motivated to act quickly to bring a perpetrator to justice and protect others from the same perpetrator if they know there is a time limit for doing so.
2. Evidence – One of the best reasons for having a statute of limitations is to preserve vital related evidence. Some forms of evidence can slip away due to environmental causes (rain, heat, etc) or be degraded to a less-useful value. While eye-witness testimony to a crime is considered extremely valuable, the longer you wait to capture that person's memories the more difficult it will be to do so.
3. Motive – As time goes by, the motivation for committing a crime can diminish and become less clear.
If you have been accused of a crime, regardless of when it occurred, speak to a criminal law attorney.