Federal Criminal Statute of Limitations | How Long Can the Feds Prosecute?

A federal statute of limitations dictates the time in which a criminal case can be filed in court. Failure to file before the statute of limitations bars a case from being instituted. This protects the quality of evidence and the ability of both sides to prepare an adequate case. Statutes of limitations on federal cases vary depending on multiple factors. Additionally, in some instances, the statute of limitations can be paused or delayed.

Federal Statute of Limitations — Generally

The federal statute of limitations for most offenses is five years from the time the offense occurred. 18 U.S.C. § 3282.

Federal Crimes that have no Statute of Limitations

There are some serious crimes that do not carry a statute of limitations and can be prosecuted at any time:

  • Any crime where death could be punishment.18 U.S.C. § 3281.
  • Crimes involving terrorism that results in serious bodily injury or create a risk of death or serious injury. 18 U.S.C. § 3286.
  • Crimes, including kidnapping, sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation, where the victim is a minor. 18 U.S.C. § 3299.

Federal Crimes with Longer Statute of Limitations

In many other cases, the statute of limitation still exists, but is longer than the general five-year rule. These include, but are not limited to:

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Federal Crimes with Shorter Statute of Limitations

Some crimes also have shorter statutes of limitations. These are somewhat more limited and in specific instances. In tax crimes, most statutes of limitations are three years instead of five years (not including those stated in the chart above). 26 U.S.C. § 6531. Criminal contempt’s statute of limitations is only one year long, if brought under certain parts of the code. 18 U.S.C § 3285.

There are certain crimes that have special rules regarding the beginning of the statute of limitations. The running of limitations typically begin after the last element has been satisfied. In the case of conspiracy, there will be many overt acts in the commission of the ultimate offense. The statute of limitations for conspiracy will begin at the final overt act. Fiswick v. United States, 329 U.S. 211, 216 (1946). Other criminal acts are also considered continuing crimes for the purposes of the statute of limitations including: escape or flight from custody or prosecution, possession of contraband, kidnapping, concealment of assets of in bankruptcy, and failure to pay child support.

Statute of limitations can also be delayed from beginning by other circumstances. In cases where DNA is involved, the statute of limitations is delayed for the time it takes to use the DNA for identification. 18 U.S.C. § 3297. The statute of limitations, in that circumstance, begins to run after the DNA has identified the wrongdoer. Under another statute, the use of DNA in an aggravated sexual abuse case to procure an indictment for the DNA profile suspends the statute of limitations. 18 U.S.C. § 3282. When an indictment or information is dismissed, the government gets an additional six months on the statute of limitations. 18 U.S.C. § 3288. When the information or evidence needed for the prosecution is located in a foreign area, the court is able to suspend the statute of limitations to accommodate. 18 U.S.C. § 3292. In addition, any person fleeing from justice shall not enjoy the benefit of the statute of limitations. 18 U.S.C. § 3290.

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