What Is the Statute of Limitations on Federal Crimes?

Raleigh NC federal lawyer statute of limitations

When a federal crime occurs, the Department of Justice, or one of the agencies within its purview, often has a specific amount of time to prosecute the case. To help you better understand how their methods work, we are sharing a closer look at the federal statute of limitations, and how much time federal prosecutors have to file criminal charges against you if you are under investigation for a crime.

What Is the Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is a law that limits the amount of time an individual can be charged with a crime or have a civil claim brought against them, regardless of whether they are responsible.

In both state and federal criminal cases, the statute of limitations begins on the date the crime occurs or is discovered. If the time runs out, the prosecutor can no longer file criminal charges against the individual accused. However, some crimes do not have statutes of limitations in place, thus, an individual can be charged at any time in the future, whether it’s one year after the date of the crime or 30 years after it occurs.

Why Does a Federal Statute of Limitations Exist?

The statute of limitations on federal crime is in place to protect a potential defendant. The main purpose is to prevent defendants from having to try and fight criminal charges that occurred such a long time ago that they can’t build a proper defense strategy against federal prosecutors. This may be due to lost evidence, lack of witnesses, and/or losing their alibi. It also prevents individuals from being continually under investigation or harassed for old charges.

Also, having a time limit in place to charge someone with federal crimes incentivizes the investigators and prosecution to work quickly to make progress on the case without putting so much pressure on them that they cut corners.

Using the Statute of Limitations Defense

A defense attorney may claim that the federal statute of limitations has run out on the criminal charge their client is facing. However, they must present this claim before the trial starts and they must show the criminal complaint was filed after the time had run out.

The Standard Statute of Limitations for Federal Crimes

In accordance with federal law, the statute of limitations for most non-capital crimes is five years. More specifically, in accordance with 18 USC 3282, the statute states:

“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.”

It’s important to note that an individual can be charged at both the state and federal level for the same crimes. Often, the state will begin the investigation or begin prosecution and then the federal courts will take over the crime or prosecute it after the state crimes have been prosecuted.

Exceptions to the Five Year Statute of Limitations

While most federal crimes must have charges brought within five years, there are exceptions to the rule that gives a United States attorney a longer period to file charges on non-capital federal offenses. Examples of longer federal statutes of limitations include:

  • Federal tax crimes, including tax evasion — 6 years
  • Fraud of a minimum of $1 million against the federal government — 7 years
  • Airport or airplane violence, including carrying a weapon on an airplane or interfering with a flight crew — 8 years
  • Maritime violence — 8 years
  • Embezzlement of funds from a federal financial institution — 10 years
  • Racketeering — 10 years
  • Fraudulent citizenship papers — 10 years
  • Theft of major artwork — 20 years

Extention and Suspension of the Statute of Limitations

In addition to the specific federal law extending the statute of limitations, the United States Code also outlines more extensions or suspensions. This includes the following offenses:

  • Wartime fraud against the federal government.
  • Child abuse cases
  • Hiding assets from estate during bankruptcy.
  • Suspending federal charges against a fugitive.
  • Extending time to collect DNA or foreign evidence.

Federal Crimes with No Statute of Limitations

Federal capital crimes, including violent crimes or those that can be punished by the death penalty, have unlimited time to bring charges. Examples of federal crimes include:

  • Capital murder, including genocide, murder committed in a federal building, or committed during a drug trafficking crime.
  • Civil rights offenses resulting in death
  • Espionage
  • Murder of a foreign official, member of Congress, Supreme Court Justice, federal judge, or federal law enforcement officer
  • Treason
  • Sex offenses in which the victim is a minor

Speak with a Criminal Defense Attorney 24/7

If you are under investigation or are facing federal charges, we can help. Our federal lawyers in Raleigh represent clients in the Eastern District of North Carolina and have the knowledge and experience to advocate for you and defend you against criminal charges both at the federal and state level. Schedule a free consultation today by calling our law firm at (919) 887-8040 or fill out our contact form to speak with an attorney.