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Old 08-11-2019, 08:40 PM
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The true purpose of a statute of limitations


I've read that the purpose of a statute of limitations (SoL) is to protect a would-be defendant from being accused of a crime that is so far back in time that he/she would not be able to mount an effective defense against the charge (would have a hard time coming up with evidence for an alibi, etc.)

But if that is the case, then it wouldn't make sense for the SoL to be longer for some crimes than others. For instance, murder has no SoL; you can be charged with murder no matter how many years have gone by since you committed the murder. But someone accused of murder 60 years ago wouldn't be any more able to come up with evidence for an alibi/exoneration than someone accused of a minor crime 60 years ago.

If the idea of SoL is that "a defendant cannot come up with evidence for his/her defense beyond X number of years," then that X number of years ought to be the same for all crimes.

It seems, then, that the real purpose of SoL is to provide mercy according to the severity of a crime; once someone has lived a certain number of years without committing more crimes, then they would get let off of the hook (i.e., a burglary over 10 years ago.) But since murder is among the most severe of crimes, it accordingly has no SoL.
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Old 08-11-2019, 09:02 PM
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It seems, then, that the real purpose of SoL is to provide mercy according to the severity of a crime; once someone has lived a certain number of years without committing more crimes, then they would get let off of the hook (i.e., a burglary over 10 years ago.) But since murder is among the most severe of crimes, it accordingly has no SoL.
Apprehension of apprehension Asimov called it.
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Old 08-11-2019, 11:02 PM
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Eh, steal a motorcycle, who cares 20 years later? Kill the owner of the motorcycle? People still care.
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Old 08-12-2019, 12:02 AM
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Statutes of limitations also ensure that the government doesn't just sit on a case and prosecute when they feel it's politically advantageous. Using Gatopescado's example, imagine the district attorney waiting until 2019 to prosecute his opponent during this election season for stealing a motorcycle in 1999. Statutes of limitation are designed to protect people but some states believe it's in the greater interest of justice for some heinous crimes not to have limitations on when they can be prosecuted.
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Old 08-12-2019, 12:27 AM
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It also avoids wasting government resources investigating something for which both physical proof and witnesses have long disappeared. If a murder has been suspected there is at the very least an autopsy record (unless the body was never found); there may be some physical evidence stashed somewhere. But for "someone stole a brooch from my gym bag while I was in the toilet", twenty years later?

Last edited by Nava; 08-12-2019 at 12:28 AM.
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Old 08-12-2019, 07:08 AM
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Up until 2010 Japan had a statute of limitations on murder.
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Old 08-12-2019, 07:40 AM
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Eh, steal a motorcycle, who cares 20 years later? Kill the owner of the motorcycle? People still care.
If you steal my motorcycle I will still care 20 years later
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Old 08-12-2019, 07:41 PM
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Does Germany? These mothers were only sentenced for murdering some of their babies in 2006 and 2008 due to statutes of limitations.

And I swear I've read about another case of serial infanticide in the past three years that also mentioned the statute of limitations for murder in her country as well. Nevermind, it's France in 2015.
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Old 08-12-2019, 07:59 PM
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Originally Posted by Velocity View Post
I've read that the purpose of a statute of limitations (SoL) is to protect a would-be defendant from being accused of a crime that is so far back in time that he/she would not be able to mount an effective defense against the charge (would have a hard time coming up with evidence for an alibi, etc.)

But if that is the case, then it wouldn't make sense for the SoL to be longer for some crimes than others. For instance, murder has no SoL; you can be charged with murder no matter how many years have gone by since you committed the murder. But someone accused of murder 60 years ago wouldn't be any more able to come up with evidence for an alibi/exoneration than someone accused of a minor crime 60 years ago.

If the idea of SoL is that "a defendant cannot come up with evidence for his/her defense beyond X number of years," then that X number of years ought to be the same for all crimes.

It seems, then, that the real purpose of SoL is to provide mercy according to the severity of a crime; once someone has lived a certain number of years without committing more crimes, then they would get let off of the hook (i.e., a burglary over 10 years ago.) But since murder is among the most severe of crimes, it accordingly has no SoL.
On one hand as time marches on society has less of an interest in seeing a crime punished. Likewise a defendant has a greater interest in seeing the crime disappear once and for all so he can stop looking over his shoulder and, as you said, so if he is innocent he may get evidence in his defense when it is fresh.

The severity of the crime is therefore the X that sets the time of the SOL. If you nicked a candy bar from a convenience store, that period would be pretty short. Murder, much longer and probably never.
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Old 08-12-2019, 09:25 PM
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Yes, it does seem to be partly about how likely it is to prove the crime and partly about whether it's worth trying to prove it. Is it worth it for the victim to try an ancient theft case? Sometimes, yes, but is it worth it for society and the police force who try to find evidence?

This has worked out quite well for murder, with DNA evidence convicting or exonerating people many years after the offence.

It's not like courts don't take into account that people's memories are likely to be unreliable, or other evidence has degraded, etc. Would it be worth going to that amount of effort, digging up diaries and ancient work records, for a theft offence? Generally no. But for murder? Generally yes,.


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Originally Posted by elfkin477 View Post
Does Germany? These mothers were only sentenced for murdering some of their babies in 2006 and 2008 due to statutes of limitations.

And I swear I've read about another case of serial infanticide in the past three years that also mentioned the statute of limitations for murder in her country as well. Nevermind, it's France in 2015.
They both worked in dentistry
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Old 08-12-2019, 10:30 PM
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Originally Posted by Velocity View Post

It seems, then, that the real purpose of SoL is to provide mercy according to the severity of a crime; once someone has lived a certain number of years without committing more crimes, then they would get let off of the hook (i.e., a burglary over 10 years ago.) But since murder is among the most severe of crimes, it accordingly has no SoL.
Thats my impression. I wouldn't call it 'mercy' per se as much as the government not giving a shit as much about jaywalking as they do about stealing a motorcycle. Or not caring about stealing a motorcycle as much as murder. Its more that the government realizes the hassle isn't worth it, but the more serious the crime the more the hassle of digging up old crimes becomes worth it.

From what I know of it, the Sol for misdemeanors (in my state) is 2 years.

5 years for felonies. No statutes for capital crimes
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Last edited by Wesley Clark; 08-12-2019 at 10:31 PM.
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Old 08-12-2019, 11:44 PM
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If you steal my motorcycle I will still care 20 years later
Sorry, dude! Was that yours?
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Old 08-13-2019, 08:04 AM
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There's also, perhaps, a sense of rehabilitation involved.

If I stole a motorcycle 20 years ago, and then, wracked with guilt, straighten my life out, go to school, get a job, start a family, and never break the law again, what does it really serve to blow up my life with a major jail sentence 20 years later?

But if, instead, I became a career criminal, there would likely be more recent crimes for which I could be convicted. Sure, maybe I "got away" with that 20 year old motorcycle theft, but are you really going to worry about that if I'm in jail for stealing a car two weeks ago?
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Old 08-13-2019, 09:51 AM
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If you steal my motorcycle I will still care 20 years later
The statute only applies to criminal prosecution. You still have a right to sue for damages in civil court. A local museum was robbed many years ago. When the statute of limitations was reached, the local new announced that the paintings still belonged to the museum.
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Old 08-13-2019, 10:14 AM
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The statute only applies to criminal prosecution. You still have a right to sue for damages in civil court. A local museum was robbed many years ago. When the statute of limitations was reached, the local new announced that the paintings still belonged to the museum.
There are statute of limitations in civil suits as well. That doesn't mean you can file suit to determine who owns it, but you couldn't sue someone for negligence, or defamation, or most things, after a certain number of years. It typically ranges from one year to 6 years, depending on the cause of action.
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Old 08-13-2019, 11:04 AM
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There's also, perhaps, a sense of rehabilitation involved.

If I stole a motorcycle 20 years ago, and then, wracked with guilt, straighten my life out, go to school, get a job, start a family, and never break the law again, what does it really serve to blow up my life with a major jail sentence 20 years later?
True, but by that logic, if a murderer has also straightened out, and lived a clean life, and gotten a job, a family, and truly reformed for the better, does he still need to be locked up for life for the murder from 20 years ago? At that point, it does him no rehabilitative good.
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Old 08-13-2019, 11:20 AM
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And face it, memories of witnesses arent much good even after a couple of years, especially if they have been questioned extensively by various sources.
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Old 08-13-2019, 12:46 PM
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True, but by that logic, if a murderer has also straightened out, and lived a clean life, and gotten a job, a family, and truly reformed for the better, does he still need to be locked up for life for the murder from 20 years ago? At that point, it does him no rehabilitative good.
That's the thing, it's a murder and much more serious than stealing a motorcycle. Even if the murderer has truly reformed for the better, he still took someone's life and a penalty must be paid. Rehabilitation is only one of the purposes of penal sentencing.

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And face it, memories of witnesses arent much good even after a couple of years, especially if they have been questioned extensively by various sources.
Memories of witnesses are notoriously unreliable even when fresh.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/a...-eyes-have-it/
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Old 08-13-2019, 01:04 PM
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True, but by that logic, if a murderer has also straightened out, and lived a clean life, and gotten a job, a family, and truly reformed for the better, does he still need to be locked up for life for the murder from 20 years ago? At that point, it does him no rehabilitative good.


Yes, but we already treat murder and theft differently, in that they have different sentences applied if you're convicted of the crime.

If a thief can be sufficiently punished or reformed by a 5 year sentence, why can't the murderer? The answer to this is the answer to your questions.
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Old 08-14-2019, 12:15 PM
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If the idea of SoL is that "a defendant cannot come up with evidence for his/her defense beyond X number of years," then that X number of years ought to be the same for all crimes.
As others have pointed out, there are multiple purposes for a SoL, not just one true purpose. But being able to come up with a defense is part of the reason.

But I disagree with your claim here.

If someone close to you was murdered (close enough that you might be a reasonable suspect), you're going to remember that event and the people you were around much much longer than if you happened to be nearby when a minor crime was committed.

There's also the fact that it requires more effort to produce evidence from the past. If the crime is weight enough (murder) then we probably should go through that effort. If it's something minor, then we probably shouldn't.
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Old 08-22-2019, 11:07 AM
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Originally Posted by Velocity View Post
I've read that the purpose of a statute of limitations (SoL) is to protect a would-be defendant from being accused of a crime that is so far back in time that he/she would not be able to mount an effective defense against the charge (would have a hard time coming up with evidence for an alibi, etc.)
I've read this too, and similarly that because memories fade, eyewitness testimony becomes so unreliable as to be practically useless. Assuming "our" reasons here are why SoLs exist, yeah, it's bullshit that murder has none.

Last edited by Fiddle Peghead; 08-22-2019 at 11:07 AM.
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Old 08-22-2019, 11:34 AM
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I've read this too, and similarly that because memories fade, eyewitness testimony becomes so unreliable as to be practically useless. Assuming "our" reasons here are why SoLs exist, yeah, it's bullshit that murder has none.
Not only fade, but change.
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Old 08-22-2019, 03:20 PM
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I've read that the purpose of a statute of limitations (SoL) is to protect a would-be defendant from being accused of a crime that is so far back in time that he/she would not be able to mount an effective defense against the charge (would have a hard time coming up with evidence for an alibi, etc.)

But if that is the case, then it wouldn't make sense for the SoL to be longer for some crimes than others. For instance, murder has no SoL; you can be charged with murder no matter how many years have gone by since you committed the murder. But someone accused of murder 60 years ago wouldn't be any more able to come up with evidence for an alibi/exoneration than someone accused of a minor crime 60 years ago.

If the idea of SoL is that "a defendant cannot come up with evidence for his/her defense beyond X number of years," then that X number of years ought to be the same for all crimes.
There's a trade-off between two counterbalancing considerations. On the one hand, it's harder to mount a defense after a long time. On the other, society wants justice for the crime. Even if the first is the same in the case of murder as for other crimes, the second can vary. IOW, letting a guy get away with murder is more a negative than letting a guy get away with robbery, so the first might outweigh the other considerations while the second doesn't outweigh those same other considerations.
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Old 08-22-2019, 03:42 PM
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There's a trade-off between two counterbalancing considerations. On the one hand, it's harder to mount a defense after a long time. On the other, society wants justice for the crime. Even if the first is the same in the case of murder as for other crimes, the second can vary. IOW, letting a guy get away with murder is more a negative than letting a guy get away with robbery, so the first might outweigh the other considerations while the second doesn't outweigh those same other considerations.
Convicting the wrong person for murder is more a negative than convicting the right person for murder is a positive.

With faded memories, dead witnesses, and lost evidence, the chances of punishing the wrong person goes up.
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Old 08-22-2019, 05:31 PM
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Convicting the wrong person for murder is more a negative than convicting the right person for murder is a positive.

With faded memories, dead witnesses, and lost evidence, the chances of punishing the wrong person goes up.
But it's not like it's a 50-50 chance either. The small likelihood of convicting the wrong person increases by some incremental amount as the time from the crime grows longer.

There's always some chance that you'll convict the wrong person. At some point, the value of being able to convict people for crimes outweighs the possibility of convicting the wrong person. The greater the crime is, the greater that value is.
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Old Yesterday, 10:36 PM
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As with any law, the real purpose of passing a statute of limitations is to get the politicians who support it re-elected, or, possibly get more campaign contributions.

Another factor could be worry about being held accountable for their own crimes. But, in the U.S., I think the factors in my first sentence are more important.

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Old Today, 06:35 AM
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There's always some chance that you'll convict the wrong person. At some point, the value of being able to convict people for crimes outweighs the possibility of convicting the wrong person. The greater the crime is, the greater that value is.
Putting it this way sounds reasonable.

But isn't what you are saying equivalent to:

The standard of proof should be lower for crimes which the public finds most reprehensible.

And even:

The standard of proof should be lower for crimes where there is a current moral panic.

Here's what I think: Deterrence weakens the longer it takes for the punishment to follow the offense. The rapists and murderers aren't going to be deterred by the idea that they (let alone, some, other, innocent person) might possibly be caught in 30 years, any more than the burglars. For the same reason (involving deterrence and risk of wrongful conviction) that the reasonable doubt standard should be same for burglary and murder, the statute of limitations should also be the same.

In practice, jurors feel more pressure not to let loose a probably-but-not-definitely guilty murderer than a probably-but-not-definitely guilty burglar. By a similar mental dynamic, politicians feel that they can't allow the statute of limitations be used to protect people accused of murder, some of whom are innocent.

The U.S. still has just about the world's highest incarceration rate. This is due to politicians following the public mood, a mood that, when it comes to truly terrible crimes, is often vengeful.
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