What Are Statutes of Limitation?

(Last Updated On: March 10, 2020)

What Are Statutes of Limitation?

Maybe you’ve heard it in some crime drama before. The protagonist commits some generic crime, and now they have to find some way around it. Inevitably, someone says, “just wait for the statute of limitations to pass, and you’re absolved”. But can our crimes really just go away like that? And if so, why? Let’s talk about what statutes of limitation actually are.

Defining Statutes of Limitation

If you’re in any way, shape, or form knowledgeable of anything legal-like, you know that statutes of limitation apply to more than just straight up crime. They have to do with basically anything legal.

So, yes, statutes of limitation are kind of like “timers” with legal proceedings. It’s a check against the prosecution (in criminal cases) or the plaintiff (in civil cases). In the criminal sense, a statute of limitation protects you from being charged with a crime you did or did not commit a while ago. 

This is to protect you from being convicted of a crime without any evidence being levied against you. You know, because over time, physical evidence gets old and falls apart, people’s memories deteriorate. We already know that eyewitness testimony is a really great way of opening the door to a lot of false convictions. That’s for eyewitnesses with a couple years removed from the event, so imagine what things must look like when you’re dealing with memories several years removed from the event. We can’t even remember what we ate for breakfast today, what makes you think we’ll remember something that happened 15 years ago?

The same applies to things like lawsuits or civil disagreements. You can’t sue someone over something they did a really long time ago.

How Does the Timer Work?

So if you take our “timer” analogy for statutes of limitation and roll with it, you might be wondering where the timer starts?

It’s pretty intuitive, we’re not going to lie. The timer starts ticking once you’ve committed the crime (or a lawsuit’s inciting incident has occurred). This does not mean the time starts once the crime has been discovered. Which means if you commit a crime and nobody ever knows that crime happened–were you ever a criminal? It’s only illegal if you get caught, right?

Wrong, you still did something illegal. You just weren’t caught.

However, this time can “pause.” Generally speaking, you cannot be living in hiding (however your state defines that), and you can’t leave the state in which the crime was committed. 

When it comes to how different American states handle statutes, there’s quite a bit of variance. And there are some crimes with no statutes of limitation. These are usually the worst types of crimes. Think murder, sex offenses, violent crimes, kidnapping, and forgery among others. Murder’s pretty universal, though.

Why Do We Have Statutes of Limitation?

Statutes of limitation are partially a product of record keeping laws. No matter where you are, things can only be kept in records for so long. Eventually, things can pile up and may need to be thrown out.

But statutes go back pretty far–even back to Athens. So why did Athens have statutes of limitation?

Turns out it’s the same reason we have them today; it’s to protect the accused. While contemporary statutes are about protecting people from false accusations, Athens had this system in place mostly to protect people from accusers. These individuals were dubbed “sycophants.” Back then, this was the term used to refer to those who levied accusations at others professionally. Nowadays, the word means you’re a suck-up or otherwise general not-cool person. 

Suffice to say Athenians weren’t a fan of making random accusations. Makes sense, “sycophant” is a gross-sounding word. Without knowing what it meant, you probably wouldn’t want to be called one.

Today, the spirit of statutes of limitation lives on. The plaintiff or prosecution (the one making the accusation) should be pursuing their accusation in a diligent manner. That means having valid evidence, which can deteriorate over time. Not to mention that you, the one being accused, may have lost access to things you could have defended yourself with. 

Plus, when you think about it, if you’re suing someone for spitting on your shoe 5 years ago, are you really trying to seek justice? Or are you just being a jerk?

We’ve been talking about limits a lot. But what about things without limits? Take this quiz here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.