A Statute of Limitations is one of the most debated aspects of criminal law. It is one of the only laws that could quite easily let a guilty criminal walk free. A statute of limitations decides the amount of time that can pass until a person can still be prosecuted for a crime they have committed. However, it is not as simple as it sounds; there are many exceptions and rules.
The statute of limitations for a specific crime describes the amount of time that legal proceedings can begin after an offence occurs. A statute of limitations is designed to prevent an unclosed case from using court time that could be used for more recent crimes. This law exists in countries where the court believes that recent crimes are more important than lesser crimes that happened long ago.
Different countries deal with statues of limitations differently, but in most places the law is roughly the same. In Canada, for example, statutes of limitation apply only to minor crimes, known as summaries. These crimes include trespassing and indecency, and always have a statute of limitations of 6 months. In the United States, statutes of limitation vary depending on the crime and the state in which that crime was committed but the general rule is that all crimes which are not decidedly "heinous" have a statute of limitations.
Certain crimes are exempt from a statute of limitation. These crimes are generally considered worse than crimes that have statutes. For example, in both Canada and the United States, robbery, murder , arson, child porn production, possession and rape have no statutes of limitation. In the United States, one notable exception is when an officer commits fraud during a court case. This offence has no statute of limitations as it is directly contradictory to the proper course of justice. Certain drug charges also have no statutes.
Statutes of limitations, like many laws, are not set in stone. There are certain conditions which, if met, allow for "tolling" or extending the time period specified in the statute. For example, if the plaintiff is deemed mentally unstable, is in jail, is a minor or if the defendant is bankrupt. In child sexual abuse cases, the statute of limitations "time limit" does not begin until the repressed memory re-occurs, instead of beginning when the crime is committed. To avoid being delayed by these conditions indefinitely, a statute of repose may be enacted. This statute is very similar to a statute of limitations except that the deadline is much more strictly enforced.
After the statute of limitations has expired, the criminal is free from being charged for their offence. In Canada, for example, a person may trespass on another person's property, but will not be charged at all if not charged within 6 months. For criminal acts that have no statute of limitations, the defendant will always be able to receive a sentence for his offence.