Idle legal Q: Statute of Limitation vs. ownership of the loot

A casual debate with a friend over a movie scene leads me to checking if what I think is true actually is. (My total trove of legal knowledge is derivedd from TV and movie shows – not quite as authoritative as Harvard Law School, I fear.)

That ‘statute of limitations’ stuff only means you can’t be prosecuted/go to jail for the crime, doesn’t it?

For example, suppose I stole that big golden statue from Rockefeller Center and stashed it for <mumble> years. After that I put it up on my front lawn. If those killjoys from New York show up, I still have to give them back the statue, right? No “It’s mine, I stole it fair and square”?

What if it’s money rather than a particular object?

For example, I achieve great fame for some wonderful achievement, and end up being interviewed by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes. I gaily talk about how I wasn’t always such a sterling citizen, why, back on St. Patrick’s Day in 1970 me and my friends got liquored up and knocked over the Shawmut Bank in Arlington Virginia.

If I then received a letter from Shawmut Bank in Arlington VA demanding the return of the $25 grand that was robbed from them on that date I’d have to hand it over, wouldn’t I?

Statute of Limitations means that according to a law on the books a claim cannot be made and or criminal charges filed after the lapse of a certain enuciated period after the event from which limitation time period begins. What that period is depends on jurisdiction.

For your example. I would hazard a guess that you probably won’t escape a civil claim by claiming that the claim in time barred, for most civil actions time begins at the time when the cause of action accures which in this case seems to be when they know its you unless the had a reasonable suspicion that it was you all along.

Even in absence of limitation. laches may attract.

Laches is an affirmative defense invoked by the defendant to prevent prosecution or a civil or legal penalty. It can also be used by a defendant to prevent a plaintiff from invoking an otherwise allowable cause for recovery. It is not a defense available to a plaintiff, and is similar to the S/L and equitable estoppel.

In the OP, the cause of action occurred when the robbery occurred, not when the culprit is identified. However, the SL is not absolute. Some events toll the statute, such as fraud. If you put the statute in the open, in your front yard, I don’t see where this would toll the statute. Nonetheless, recovery may be available in an action in equity under unjust enrichment. The SL is a defense to an action at law or criminal action. I do not believe it is available to an action in equity, but don’t quote me on that.

Limitation and Laches are both available only to a Defendant not a Plaintiff for obvious reasons.

"A Cause of Action"relates only to Civil Cases not criminal ones. Many Criminal Statute have no limitation period and in any case for them time begins when the crime occurred. In the case of Civil cases time begins to run when the cause of action has occurred and the Plaintiff knows about the same and knows or could find out by making reasonable inquiries who is responsible.

For the most part the three happen at the same time. However there are cases for example some personal injury cases where the three may each be established at different times. In litigation relating to exposure to Asbestos, it took years after exposure for the Plaintiff to even fall ill and even longer to ascertain the probable cause of the same, time began to run the had done the last of the three.\

As always the above is a general overview of law in the common law world, Continental Legal systems are completely different and even within common law countries there are local quirks and peculiarities which may affect the issues

And oh yeah, Equity cannot be used to overturn the express provisions of a statute.

Yeah, but can I keep my stolen statue??
If I understand what y’all have said, the original owners can sue to get it back for whatever number of years the Statute of Limitations allows starting from when they find out I’m the culprit, which most likely means from when I stick it out on the lawn.


Guess I’ll have to make other plans to beautify the neighborhood. :wink:

Most criminal statutes in most states have limitations. The primary ones that don’t are murder, other kinds of similar offenses, and aggravated kidnapping. Some states may have others, but I’m not aware of them.

I suspect that stolen statues statutes vary from state to state.

Wouldn’t the clock for a civil action start when they noticed their statue was missing, presumably stolen, rather than when they identified a particular person as the thief?

What if the possessor didn’t even do the crime? If I discover that someone’s grandfather stole my grandmother’s diamond ring, and they still have it, do I have any way to get it back? Are they the legal owners after all that time?

I think there would still be a cause of action for unjust enrichment, which wouldn’t be subject to any statute of limitations. Laches could be a defense to this if Rockefeller Plaza knew or should have known that StarvingButStrong had possession of it.

It depends on whether or not title in said ring was properly passed to your Grand father.

Oh, a copper clapper caper!

If that was the case then you could earn a good title in a property buy simply nicking it and hiding it until the matter becomes time barred*.

You need an understanding of the Civil Justice process to realize why. A Civil Action is between the parties, the state is involved very peripherally if at all. A party cannot commence an action for recovery unless it identifies the party against whom a claim is made and the particulars of a claim. A private party usually does not have the states resources to investigate and find this all out. So starting time when they notice that the statue is missing will be an unnecessary hardship. Time starts when the party knows that there is in fact a cause of action and that who is the likely party against whom a claim is worth pursuing or the party can so learn by taking reasonable steps.

A Criminal Case is different. The state is leading the prosecution. It is under a duty to investigate all reasonable criminal complaints and take the appropriate measures in each and every instance and indeed has the resources to di so. It is in the public interest that all criminal proceedings be undertaken in a timely manner.
*Ignoring adverse possession for the time being.

If you are scheduled for an interview and Ed Bradley walks into the room, you can be assured that you don’t need to worry about any statute of limitations…:wink:

Thank you. That’s what I thought, but - hey- what do I know?

Statute of limitations doesn’t mean the thief gets to keep what they stole simply by running out the clock.

The clock doesn’t start ticking until the original owner figures out where it is. If you stole the Rockefeller Center statue and put it on your lawn 10 years later, the owners could initiate a claim within five years of your unveiling. They couldn’t have made a claim before that because they didn’t know who had the statue or where it was.

This issue has been well tested in the art world, when stolen art ends up in the hands of innocent third-parties. This article begins with a discussion of Canadian Law, but gets into detailed discussion of notable New York art theft cases and how ownership claims were litigated – some more than fifty years after an artwork was stolen.

A thief can’t pass a good title.


If nothing else, stealing the statue and then displaying it would be considered tax evasion (if discovered by the IRS) since you did not claim it as income when you took it. And there is no statute of limitations on paying your taxes. It’s not a good idea to advertise past criminal acts.

That case involved a BFP. As to the original thief:

The courts, in that case, tried to balance the protection of the BFP against the original owner, and they came up with different theories: delaying the S/L, laches, demand and refusal rule, and tolling the statute until the identity of the BFP is known.

I believe the rule that Lumpy stated (and as I initially stated) is the law unless a BFP is involved. At any rate, that case does not contradict that law, except possibly in art cases, but that case involved a BFP and could not be used as a precedent as to the original thief.