Question on-Statute of Limitations

A recent report on the Me, Too movement mentioned the possibility of extending the statute of limitations on crimes of abuse of women, from, say, five years to twenty years, This would permit criminal prosecution against such crimes committed long after the five-year statute of limitations

. This struck me as constitutionally dubious. The Constitution prohibits the creation of a criminal statute after an act and then charging the one committing the act with a crime.

A second person, on the other hand, said that this was obviously true and the change in the statute of limitations referred only to future acts, not past ones.

A third person said that changing the statute of limitations was not analogous to the constitutional provision and could be changed for past acts.

Who was correct?

The courts have generally upheld laws extending an existing statute of limitations, but laws reviving limitation periods that have already expired were struck down by SCOTUS in Stogner v. California.

The argument is that if the time period has not yet run out, then prosecution is possible right now, and no new crime is being created by an extension of the period. However, once time has expired, then prosecution is no longer possible, so attempting to revive the period in effect creates a new crime, which violates the ex post facto clause.

I’m not sure the Constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws would apply.

The sexual abuse was a crime at the time it was committed, so they are not retroactively making it illegal. They are just extending the time that it could be prosecuted. I think that would be allowed, legally.

I do have some personal qualms about this, though. If the reason for the statute of limitations is to prevent ‘stale’ witnesses, etc. how did that change? Those witnesses will have even more ‘stale’ memories, be less locate-able, etc. than they were before.

Just because a prosecution is not barred by a statute of limitations does not mean that it will, in practice, be possible to present evidence which will satisfy the prosecution’s onus of proof. Extending or removing the statute of limitations does nothing to solve the problems of deceased witnesses, fading memories, lost or decayed physical evidence, etc, etc. So there’s still be plenty of old cases that, although no longer statute-barred, cannot be prosecuted, or cannot be successfully prosecuted.

New Jersey changed the statute of limitations on several sexual assault laws years ago. Now there is no statute of limitations. However when an old case comes to light we have to do some math because incidents that happened before the change fall under the old law. I had a case involving two victims who were sisters. One case could be prosecuted the other could not.

So what specifically is the math? That an extension of the limit allows prosecutions even if the crime happened before the extension came into effect, provided the limit under the old rule had not expired at the time the limit was extended? (As **slash2k **describes?)

Statute of limitation typically have an event from which time runs. Usually from commission of offence. You need to calculate if time had started, whether any periods may be excluded, etc.

I thought the statute time usually started from the time of the discovery of the crime.

There isn’t going to be any one answer to these questions because just about every state have different laws on the statute of limitations depending on the severity of the crime and the age of the victim.

Also according to one source I read both South Carolina and Wyoming apparently don’t have any statute of limitations on any sort of criminal prosecution. Does anyone know if this true?

Not for criminal claims. The time starts upon the commission of the crime. This however gets murky when the crime is a conspiracy. The limitation upon discovery deals more with civil cases.

You might not be sure, but as the cite posted by slash2k states, the Supreme Court holds that it does. And their opinion is somewhat more important than yours.

Don’t know if it’s true of those states or not, but there’s nothing improbable about the claim. At common law there’s no limitation period on the prosecution of a crime; a limitation period only applies if the legislature enacts one (which is why we speak of a “statute of limitations”) and there are plenty of common-law jurisdictions outside the US where the legislature hasn’t done so, or hasn’t done so except on a piecemeal basis. So it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if there were jurisdictions within the US where this hasn’t been done.

That’s the case in Canada. There is a six month limitation for summary conviction offences.

There’s no limitation on proceedings by way of indictment.

In Ohio an offense is committed when every element of the offense occurs. In the case of an offense of which an element is a continuing course of conduct, the period of limitation does not begin to run until such course of conduct or the accused’s accountability for it terminates, whichever occurs first.

Or until the Corpus Delicti is discovered that the SOL begins, regardless of the actual offense date

According to this, you are correct. To check, I scanned those state’s Criminal Procedure Codes, no mention of SOL’s that I found.

In 1996, the legislature changed the statute of limitations to permit prosecution for sexual assault at any time. This law stated the act took effect immediately and applied to all “offenses not yet barred from prosecution under the statute of limitations as of the effective date.”

The other important date was in 1989 when it was changed for victims under 18. Then it was 5 years after they turned 18.

You know, memories that old are not in any way to be counted upon. Even if they seem to be very clear.

A valid and relevant consideration, and one which may make it difficult in practice to secure a conviction in most cases.

But it’s not necessarily a reason for an a priori ban on a prosecution. What if guilt can be established by evidence which doesn’t consist of decades-old memories?

If you don’t have a statute of limitations, the question is not “can we commnce a prosecution of this charge?”, which often leads to technical arguments about exactly when limitation periods run from or which events can serve to “stop the clock”. Instead, the question is “can we prove this charge?”, which leads to a focus on the amount and quality of the evidence available. Arguably, that’s a better basis on which to approach the issue.

So what is the stated aim of having statues of limitations in the legal system? If its a practical thing about the reliability of evidence (particular eye witness testimony) over time why is murder often exempt (surely murder prosecutions above all should only be based on reliable evidence)

Or is it simply something that has been part of the legal tradition since days of yore, that doesn’t have a particular reasoning behind it?

It hasn’t been part of legal tradition since the days of yore; that’s the point. The default is that there is no temporal limitation on the prosecution of crimes. There won’t be unless and until the legislature decides that there ought to be one, and takes steps to introduce it.

The arguments in favour might be:

  1. It’s unfair/oppressive to citizens to have the threat of prosecution permanently hanging over them for what might be relatively minor offences which may have been committed when they were young and stupid and way less mature and civic-minded than they are now.

  2. It’s inefficient for the police/prosecution authorities to have to devote resources to the investigation/prosecution of long-ago crimes where, in fact, successful prosecution is extremely difficult.

  3. It may be unsatisfactory to have to try crimes based on evidence which has been degraded by the lapse of time. In such circumstances convictions may be less likely to be safe, and acquittals may be less likely to be satisfactory to the community/to victims.

  4. A fixed cut-off time for prosecutions may be crude, but it has at least the merit of clarity and certainty. Everybody knows where they stand.

The argument against, of course, is an appeal to justice; it is unjust that somebody should escape prosecution and punishment for a crime merely because of the lapse of time.

At least the first two of the arguments in favour of a statute of limitations have less and less weight if we are looking at more and more serious charges, which is why if you do decide to have a statute of limitations you might also decide to carve out of it a range of serious crimes, including murder and perhaps some of the more serious assaults.