At one point, we offered a reason why The Founders deemed lawyers the wrong kind of people to hold public office. When you think about the Statute of Limitations, a concept obviously written by lawyers and composed into laws passed by politicians, it’s one that clearly needs revisiting.
A statute of limitations is a law that forbids prosecutors from charging someone with a crime that was committed more than a specified number of years ago. The main purpose of these laws is to ensure that convictions are based upon evidence (physical or eyewitness) that has not deteriorated with time. After the time period has run, the crime can no longer be prosecuted, meaning that the accused person is essentially free.
Each state establishes its own statutes of limitations, often with different time limits for distinct types of crime.
All the perpetrator has to do is hope no one finds out about it and after a certain amount of time, “the accused person is essentially free”. We all know there are exceptions to this. For example, one can binge watch hundreds of hours of “cold cases” being investigated decades after the fact with murderers later prosecuted and imprisoned. Bill Cosby knows that rape allegations, decades after the fact, can be acted upon with vigor.
The question should be why some crimes allowed to be blown off and why aren’t the application of a statute of limitations uniform?
Not all crimes are governed by statutes of limitations. Some states also have no time limits for certain other types of crime, such as sex offenses or terrorism charges. Colorado has no statute of limitations on treason. California has none on the embezzlement of public funds.
Isn’t it sad how Person A can screw over Person B and get away with it if undiscovered within seven years, but in California you’d better not screw over state government when it comes to tax dollars because they’ll never let it go. State laws should be rather cut-and-dry and while some crimes are more serious than others and rightfully have no statute of limitations, others have varying times where the disciplined act of laying low is a ticket to freedom.
If you bumped someone off twenty years ago and the authorities find out, you could be charged with murder. In some states, if you stole that person’s money, you can walk away. Gotcha….
For example in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the simplicity of the statute of limitation has been muddied with inconsistency and legalese.
An indictment for murder may be found at any time after the death of the person alleged to have been murdered. An indictment or complaint for an offense set forth in section 13B, 13B1/2, 13B3/4, 13F, 13L, 22A, 22B, 22C, 23, 23A, 23B, 24B or subsection (b) of section 50 of chapter 265, for conspiracy to commit any of these offenses, as an accessory thereto, or any 1 or more of them may be found and filed at any time after the date of the commission of such offense; but any indictment or complaint found and filed more than 27 years after the date of commission of such offense shall be supported by independent evidence that corroborates the victim’s allegation. Such independent evidence shall be admissible during trial and shall not consist exclusively of the opinions of mental health professionals. An indictment for an offense set forth in sections 22, 24 or subsection (a) of section 50 of chapter 265, or for conspiracy to commit either of these offenses or as an accessory thereto or any 1 or more of them may be found and filed within 15 years of the date of commission of such offense. An indictment for an offense set forth in sections 17, 18, 19 and 21 of said chapter 265 or section 17 of chapter 272, for conspiracy to commit any such crime, as an accessory thereto, or any 1 or more of them may be found and filed within 10 years after the date of commission of such offense. An indictment for any other crime shall be found and filed within 6 years after such crime has been committed. Any period during which the defendant is not usually and publicly a resident within the commonwealth shall be excluded in determining the time limited.
Notwithstanding the first paragraph, if a victim of a crime set forth in section 13B, 13F, 13H, 22, 22A, 23, 24B, 26A or 50 of chapter 265, or section 1, 2, 3, 4, 4A, 4B, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 26, 28, 29A, 29B, 33, 34, 35 or 35A of chapter 272 is under the age of 16 at the time the crime is committed, the period of limitation for prosecution shall not commence until the victim has reached the age of 16 or the violation is reported to a law enforcement agency, whichever occurs earlier.
— Massachusetts General Law, Section 63: Limitation of criminal prosecutions
So depending on what you do in Massachusetts, you either have to look over your shoulder indefinitely or maybe 27 years or 15 years or six years. Meanwhile, the statute of limitations is much simpler on the federal level.
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.
— 18 U.S. Code § 3282, Offenses not capital
“Not capital” is the key.
Obviously the jurisdiction for a nation is much larger than a state and the manpower needed to investigate crimes may have necessitated some kind of cut off. But if you think about it, five years on the federal level is an interesting number obviously not chosen arbitrarily.
We’re talking about real crime that damages people here; not the breaking of rules or having bad luck. If for some reason you can’t pay your bills, Congress stepped in and told banks how long the statute of limitations would be regarding holding consumers responsible for past issues.
The length of time negative information can remain on your credit report is governed by a federal law known as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Most negative information must be taken off after seven years. Some, such as a bankruptcy, remains for up to 10 years. When it comes to the specifics of derogatory credit information, the law and time limits are more nuanced.
President Richard Nixon signed the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1970 so we would all be able to see what information unelected credit companies collected on us, correct or not. It’s a shame the creation of these companies wasn’t subject to public debate; it would have been animated so say the least.
When it comes to anything that falls into the crime column, there should be no statute of limitations. Just because someone was better at covering his or her tracks, thus it took longer for an aggrieved to discover that foul play occurred, perpetrators shouldn’t have a time limit that gives them the freedom to possibly commit illegal acts again. And there should be uniformity. If something is deemed a federal offense, there should be no varying time limit as to the possibility of facing justice simply because of the state the crime was committed in.
Lawyers and politicians gave perpetrators a stay-out-of-jail card and it’s just a matter of time.