Statute of limitations

This is part GD, part GQ.

What is the rationale behind the existence of statute of limitations? Wouldn’t it make sense that if you commit a crime, whichever it might be, you could be punished any time in the future? Do all countries have them?

Don’t you mean “statue” of limitations?

Huh? Is there a sculptor called Limitation?

Sorry, I was just doing “Kramer” again. (You did a pretty good “Jerry” in response, tho. Damned good, in fact.) I wonder about this, too, and I wonder why murder gets all the cold case action. I mean, I know why murder is considered pretty important and all, but there are other crimes as well: blackmail, treason, reckless endangerment, no? Why does murder get all the play? (Does “murder,” in fact, get all the play?)

Not meant to hijack as much as to enhance.

I’ve heard 3 reasons given.

First, there’s the idea that hiding from the law for years and years is punishment enough in itself. This I don’t buy; if nothing else a lot of crime is committed by people who never think they’ll get caught and therefore don’t worry about it.

Second, especially for minor crimes there’s the argument that it’s best to put the past behind us, people change and so on. In other words, should a 50 year old businessman be jailed for shoplifting when he was 20, if he hasn’t broken the law sense ? IMHO somewhat more sensible, but it’s the sort of thing that should be judged on a case by case basis ideally.

Finally, there’s what I think is the best argument. Namely, that over time people’s memories fade and evidence decays, and therefore the reliability of a trial goes down over time.

I’ll throw one out (that I’ve never heard, honestly, but occurs to me) - to prevent law enforcement from holding something over you. That is, they’ve got you for crime X - but rather than charge you, they let you know that they won’t bring you in so long as you ________________ .

In other words, to prevent extortion.

Don’t agree with that one (do you have evidence that really is a reason it exists?). The more serious a crime, the longer the statute of limitations - murder has none (AFAIK in every state in the United States). While it’s true that evidence - especially testimony, gets less reliable over time, I’d think that would make the more serious crimes have shorter times, or all crimes the same. It’s worse to wrongly convict of murder than to wrongly convict of disturbing the peace, but the unending limitations for murder mean the state would be more likely to commit that error.

There’s also the element of providing a deadline so that the authorities will be dilligent at gathering the evidence and filing charges and pay attention to real and immediate threats. At a certain point, the state has to make a call on whether to keep paying attention to an old petty crime, or go after something that’s currently affecting the community. It’s inefficient to keep chasing Mr. Valjean over 20-year-old bread when there’s people getting mugged two blocks from the police station NOW.

OTOH, murder, War Crimes, treason, malfeasance of the public treasury, and such – “capital” crimes and crimes against the State itself – get an infinite SOL because the society decides that these are extraordinary offences that must not go unpunished, no matter how long it takes.

and, how would an innocent person be able to defend themselves reasonably with such a delay. do you know what you were doing May 2, 1995 at 2 pm? could you prove it?

I have an anecdote that relates to this idea:

The company my mom works for is essentially a middle-man for certain types of contractors. They get a contract to do something and match it up with a contractor who can do it(I’m being intentionally vague here, and my description is off in a few details, but this will do). Once they had a contract go back; the contractor wasn’t doing any work. Long story short, the contract was terminated and the contractor ended up going out of business.

Seven year later, my mom’s company gets sued for breach of contract. Company policy was to keep the file for every contract for six years after the end of the contract, so they had absolutely no evidence with which to defend themselves. Conviniently, the contractor had kept any documents that were in his favour but none that would be bad for his case. My mom’s company got killed in court without the documentation.

Now, is it really fair that you must keep all documentation indefinitely about every contract? Ten years ago the company was dealing with more 1700 contractors, and they’ve been in business since the 40’s. A statute of limitations is necessary so that people can be able to defend themselves.

I understand that the preceeding example is about a civil matter, but a hypothetical for a criminal case wouldn’t be too difficult to construct. Suppose you were accused of stealing a computer you’ve owned for years. How could you prove you’d bought it in the first place? Unless you keep every single credit card statement you’ve ever recieved, you’d be screwed. If you paid cash, you’d have to hold on to every single receipt.

Burden of proof is on the prosecution, not the defendant.

“this serial number computer is on a list of stolen property, issued by this company” = sufficient for indictment/trial.

“that’s the guy that hit me in the eye at 2 pm on June 3, 1980.” = sufficient for indictment, trial.

“that’s the man who grabbed my breast at 3 pm on July 13, 1972” = sufficient for indictment, trial.

now the burden is on you that you owned that computer, you weren’t there when the other things happened, etc.
good luck.
now the burden is on you.

There was a recent Dateline (NBC) story that’s relevant here.
In 1984 this 17 year old freshman was raped at a frat house party. She reported the
rape, but no charges were ever filed.
I’m going to skip a lot of details, but in 2005 she received a letter from the rapist
containing an apology of sorts.
She subsequently engaged in an email exchange w/ the man who eventually
stated that he had raped her. After some reflection she made a cold call to the police
chief in the city where the rape occurred. Although no record of the rape report
existed, either w/ the police dept. or w/ the college, but the chief pursued the charge,
got an indictment and extradited the man from Las Vegas to Charlottesville, VA… He
is currently awaiting trial. It seems that Virginia has no statute of limitations on any
felony crime. He has retained an atty. and now claims that he didn’t really rape her,
but admits he believes he was a little rough w/ her during intercourse.
It appeared, during the story, that both these people had suffered, life long and
negative, psychologically effects from this rape. She had had one failed marriage that
she blamed on this and continuing self esteem problems. He had dropped out of
college a few days after the rape and had been a long term alcoholic before turning to
AA. It was as a part of his 12 step program that he contacted her in an attempt to
make amends.

I think another aspect is that 6 years is more then enough time for the state to interfere with a innocent person’s life - remember the burden of proof is on the state, and the suspect is considered innocent.

Certainly the most accepted view is the third mentioned by Der Trihs; over the years witnesses die and documents get lost or thrown away so, in the typical case, a trial will get less and less reliable the later it happens. The fact that the burden of proof is on the state isn’t really relevant here – because missing evidence has just as much chance to hurt the innocent as it does the Government, as illustrated by wring.

Furthermore, the SoL acts as a “statute of repose.” This is basically a term of art for the second reason mentioned by Der Trihs – that it may be unfair to punish someone for something they did very long ago and which they haven’t repeated. This is particularly important in civil cases, when companies are in the position to buy insurance or plan their business with a vague idea of what kind of liabilities they might expect over the near term. If they might be sued today for a shoody product the company made 85 years ago, when not only was the ownership different, but none of the directors of officers were even born, then there’s no way they’d be able to carry the weight of that potential liability.

Finally, for those of us in the Law and Economics camp, SoLs, esp. in civil law, theoretically lead to social efficiency. If there’s a potential wrong that was done years and years ago but the injured party never cared to sue when the injury was fresh, we are entitled to assume that he’s gotten over it. And therefore economic efficiency is served by the case disappearing because the plaintiff doesn’t care about thte injury anymore (therefore his real damages should be zero), and the defendant is able to avoid costly litigation and the potential loss of the damages award, which would only be a windfall for the plaintiff anyway.


Not so. In a criminal case, the prosecution always bears the burden of proof. You seem to be addressing the threshold issue of whether there is sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction, not whether the jury will ultimately determine the evidence is sufficient to establish guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.

minty, I think you’re confusing the issue with unnecessary technicalities. First, reagardless of where the legal concept of “burden of proof” lies, if the Government makes its case as an initial matter, then the defendant is in the position of convincing the jury that the G. made an error of some kind. Sure, the G. still has the BoP in the legal sense, but from a practical standpoint, the G. has concvinced the jury (legitimately) that D. did the crime, so now it’s on D. to convince them he didn’t, or at least raise reasonable doubt. Regardless, if the sales receipt or his airline ticket that shows it couldn’t have been him is lost, then the evidentiary failure injures him – because a jury is well within its bounds to hear D. say “It wasn’t me, I bought the computer, but I don’t have the receipt anymore!” but to refuse to believe him. Whereas the same jury would believe D. if he could show them the receipt.


a. so? indictment, accusation, trial etc. can certainly be horifically destrutive.
b. innocence project demonstrates errorrs can happn.
c for an innocent poor defendant, risky to hope truth wins

Speak to me not of metaphysics. Burden of proof is a simple legal concept, and that burden lies with the prosecution, not the defense. Destruction, errors, and risk are separate issues, though certainly valid in their own right.

Would you be OK with wring simply restating his last line:

“Now demonstrating that the state’s charges against you are wrong is much harder”?

Well, let’s put it this way- say someone came forward and said that you raped them 20 years ago (based upon “recovered memories” :rolleyes: ). Now, if they had came forward 20 days after instead, you’d have had scads of eyewitnesses and an ironclad alibi. But now you can’t remember where you were, the witnesses don’t remember or are dead or can’t be found.