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The Statute of Limitations Explained

You've probably heard of the "statute of limitations" at some point in your life, but the term is probably a foggy memory. This statute actually refers to the collective rules regarding when criminal proceedings may be established, and a different statute exists for different types of criminal charges.

The statute of limitations is why you won't hear about vandalism charges from three years ago, or why if you run a stoplight in February you won't have to worry about charges in December. It is also why you may hear about trials for murders that occurred in the 1960s. The statute of limitations goes into effect on the date the crime was committed. The Moral Penal Code gives the following statutes:

  • Murder charges: no time limit
  • Serious felony offenses: six years
  • Misdemeanor charges: two years
  • Petty misdemeanors and infractions: six months

States are also prohibited from retroactively allowing more time to prosecute and applying this policy to existing cases. For example, if a state decides it wants to extend the statute of limitations for felony offenses, it has permission to do so. This new statute would not apply to a crime already committed, however. Crimes that are especially heinous are allowed no statute of limitations; however, if a case runs for too long or an old murder charge is brought up a judge may dismiss it. The right to a speedy trial may precede the right to bring up a murder charge at any time.

The statute of limitations is also only valid if the criminal resides in the same state in which the crime is committed. So if a burglary is committed in West Virginia, and the perpetrator flees to California for ten years, he or she can still be charged upon return to West Virginia. There are also changing laws regarding DNA evidence and crimes against minors. Most states say that crimes against minors have a statute of limitations that begins when the victim turns 18. DNA evidence may also be processed in later years after the crime is committed, so the common precedent is that if DNA evidence establishes a suspect, prosecutors get one year to bring forth charges.

Prosecutors may still bring up "stale charges" once the statute of limitations has run out, and defendants may even be charged. It is up to the defense to bring up the issue with the judge, and only while trial is still continuing. A person charged cannot plead that they were convicted while the statute of limitations had expired and push for dismissal of charges. This person would have waived their right by not using their defense.

Keep the statute of limitations in mind in case you are ever accused of a crime. If you have further questions about how to raise a statute of limitations defense, call our office so an attorney can help you present your defense to the judge. These limitations exist to protect the accused, but it's up to you to make sure you make the most of your rights.

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