Federal criminal law has a statute of limitations, which is to say that there are time limits imposed upon the commencement of federal prosecutions. Federal prosecutions are commenced by either grand jury indictment, or the filing of an Information, for the sake of the federal statute of limitations.
The purpose of a statute of limitations is to prevent a person from being unfairly prosecuted based upon an allegation that dates back many years, as the evidence and witnesses that would be needed to defend against such a charge are likely long gone. The statute of limitations provides finality and predictability to federal law.
The general federal statute of limitations in criminal cases can be found in 18 U.S. Code § 3282, and provides as follows:
Except as otherwise expressly provided by law, no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense, not capital, unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within five years next after such offense shall have been committed.
(b) DNA Profile Indictment.—
In any indictment for an offense under chapter 109A for which the identity of the accused is unknown, it shall be sufficient to describe the accused as an individual whose name is unknown, but who has a particular DNA profile.
(2)Exception.—Any indictment described under paragraph (1), which is found not later than 5 years after the offense under chapter 109A is committed, shall not be subject to—
(A) the limitations period described under subsection (a); and
(B) the provisions of chapter 208 until the individual is arrested or served with a summons in connection with the charges contained in the indictment.
For purposes of this subsection, the term “DNA profile” means a set of DNA identification characteristics.
As can be seen, there generally a 5-year statute of limitations for federal charges that do not involve the death penalty. Charges that do involve the death penalty, which include murder, certain acts of treason, certain acts of terrorism, etc., have either extended statutes of limitation or no statute of limitations at all. However, many other federal crimes have longer statutes of limitations than 5 years. Some examples:
- Certain art theft crimes: 20 years
- Various sexual crimes against children: 10 years or no statute of limitations
- Some Banking Fraud crimes: 10 years
- Certain computer crimes: 8 years
- Hate crimes relating to religious property: 7 years
- Some tax-related crimes: 6 years
- Passport fraud: 10 years
- Certain theft of art: 20 years
In federal cases where a person is indicted and the federal government does not arrest the person for an extended term of time due to the government just sitting on the case, that can be a basis to seek a dismissal of the case. The federal courts have taken this approach due to the accused’s right to a speedy trial, and since to hold otherwise would allow the government to circumvent the statute of limitations by filing charges and then waiting an inordinate amount of time before proceeding with the case. Indeed, since federal charges are normally sealed until the defendant is arrested, those facing federal charges often do not know about the charges until the arrest takes place, which gives further reason to support the position taken by the courts on this issue.
Those facing a federal criminal case are well advised to seek an attorney at once, as handling the case properly is of the utmost importance.