Why have a statute of limitations?

Can someone explain to me the legal reasoning for having statutes of limitations on crimes?

I can understand that evidence often gets harder to obtain as time goes on, but couldn’t this be sorted out at trial? After all, a large portion of any trial is evaluating the quality of the evidence that’s presented (and what will be presented in the first place.)

One could even imagine cases where the quality of evidence would improve over time (witnesses getting over their fears, new investigative techniques, etc.)

I particularly notice that the limits are not set particularly long. For the examples I looked at, it’s not like the crime is ancient history when the statue of limitations kicks in.

And in practice, it’s rather common to see cases that would be prosecutable except for the statute of limitations. It’s not like it only happens in a few corner cases.

So where do these come from? Do all countries do the same thing?

I belive one of the reasons for it’s existance, as you mentioned is the quality of proof.

But, unlike what you seemt o suggest, this is made for the benefit of the defendant, not the prosecutor (I don’t think…).

As time goes by evidence fades or is destroyed, people forget, etc.

How can a defendant be able to gather enough evidence to prove he is innocent?

Here’s the rationale from my encyclopedia (short excerpt only):

I think this is pretty much on target. A staute of limitations is indeed for the benefit of the defendant. We view it as somhow inequitable to make people answer for crimes that happened long ago, and the passage of time makes it more difficult for a defendant to defend himself due to degradation of evidence, failing memories, difficulty in tracking down witnesses, etc.

It’s also worth mentioning that generally statutes of limitations grow longer in proportion to the seriousness of the crime. Misdemeanor theft might have a one to four year statute of limitations, while murder usually has no statute of limitations at all.

On a related tangent, is there a “statute of limitations” on warrants also, or do statutes of limitation specifically refer to the amount of time the prosecution has to actually charge you with the crime. 9 times out of 10 warrants are issued for petty crimes such as parking tickets, misdemeanors, etc. Do they leave these on the books indefinitely or are they weeded out over time?

Note that in civil cases, much of the perceived injustice of a short statute of limitations is elided by the doctrine of equitable tolling. If the putative plaintiff couldn’t have known about his injury, then the limitations period doesn’t begin to run against him until he learns. For instance, if there was medical malpractice which didn’t lead to symptoms for several years, there’s no SoL problem if the patient brings suit after he learns of the injury. Or if the plaintiff knows of his injury but can’t at first figure out who caused it despite diligent investigation, the statute is “tolled.” (Meaning it doesn’t run.) Similarly, if the defendant does something fradulent to hide his identity or the fact of injury from the plaintiff, that tolls the SoL as well. As long as the plaintiff is reasonably diligent in investigating his injury and its cause, and then prosecuting it when he finally does have enough information to bring suit, the SoL will not bar him from vindicating his interests.


I don’t know the answer to that, but I would point out that when you’ve been issued a warrant or a citation, that is the equivalent of an indictment. Once you’ve been indicted, the statute of limitations is not relevant.

One reason I was taught is that it helps reduce one’s vulnerability to blackmail.


A few comments on this. I agree that equitable tolling exists, but at least in my state (Illinois), the doctrine is not this broad. The most recent Illinois Supreme Court case on the issue would require “extraordinary” circumstances or misleading conduct by the defendant. If you know you’ve been injured, you’d better move heaven and earth to find out who did it before the statute runs, otherwise it will likely apply. (There are some specific mechanisms allowed which would allow you to name people (before the S/L runs) as respondents in discovery to compel them to give you the information that you need. If that information points to one of those respondents, he can be converted into a defendant for a limited period of time after the S/L has run.)

There’s also the possibility of a statute of repose. Repose statutes impose an absolute deadline on suits, calculated from the date of the act of wrongdoing, even if the plaintiff (a) doesn’t know who caused the harm (b) may not know he’s even been harmed and © may not have suffered injury yet. (Limitations statutes generally start running on the date the plaintiff know or should have know that he was harmed, even if he doesn’t know who caused it.)

The © situation might puzzle some people. How could someone be the victim of wrongdoing, but not (yet) be harmed? Examples are asbestos exposure which causes cancer years later, or some other sort of wrongful act which greatly increases the chance of cancer or other disease in the future. Another such situation would be legal malpractice (perhaps the misdrafting of a will) which caused the loss of some right years in the future.

IAAL, but not your lawyer. This is general info and not reliable legal advice. See a lawyer licensed in your state for that.

Mostly, I think it’s to protect people from political fads.
The Joe McCarthy commie hunting, etc.