Why Statutes of Limitations Exist
As time passes after the commission of a crime, the quality of evidence deteriorates. Peoples’ memories fade, physical evidence can be compromised, and other factors may obscure the truth. Furthermore, pursuing cases decades later rarely yields justice. Prosecutors can only pursue serious crimes such as murder and sexual assault indefinitely. Limitations exist to protect accused individuals from unfair prosecution over time.
Statute of Limitations in Texas
For many cases, the clock starts ticking as soon as someone commits an offense. However, several factors may alter typical limitations. If investigators discover a crime years after commission, the time may begin running when they should have discovered the crime. If special circumstances exist, the courts may “toll the statute of limitations” – stop the clock. Tolling can occur if:
- The accused is a fugitive and evades capture for several years
- Another indictment for the same offense is still pending (the time frame will begin after the commission of the last act in a continuing crime)
The statutes of limitations charged individuals face vary by state and by crime. To understand the nuances of time limitations, we strongly encourage all accused individuals to discuss the relevant statute with a defense attorney.
Statutes of Limitations for Felony Offenses in Texas
In Texas, typical statutes of limitations for felony offenses include:
- Murder, no limitation. Although prosecutors can pursue a case years after a murder takes place, a judge may dismiss the charges in certain cases based on a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.
- Manslaughter, no limitation. The state recognizes the same statute of limitations in manslaughter cases as in murder cases.
- Certain sexual assault crimes, no limitation. Sexual assault cases without limitation include aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault involving children, serial or continuous sexual assault, and sexual assault involving the discovery of otherwise inexplicable DNA.
- Human trafficking, no limitation. The statute of limitations on trafficking includes all acts of knowingly forcing another child or adult into labor or services, including continuous or ongoing acts of trafficking.
- Hit and runs involving death, no limitation. If someone leaves the scene of an accident and a victim dies either at the scene or after, that individual can face charges at any point in the future.
- Arson, 10 years. Acts of arson include knowingly or recklessly setting fire to vegetation, buildings, vehicles, and other structures. The state can pursue charges for up to a decade after the fire takes place.
- Other sexual assault crimes, 10 years. In cases involving rape, molestation, and assault of adults, the statute of limitations extends for one decade from the incident.
- Forgery, 10 years. The state can pursue all cases of forgery including creating false documents and using forged information to purposefully harm another for a decade.
- Fraud, 7 years. Most types of fraud, including the use or possession of someone’s identity, Medicaid information, or insurance information for intentional personal gain fall under a seven-year statute.
- Theft, burglary, and robbery, 5 years. Felony charges of theft, burglary, and robbery fall under a five year statute unless the victim of burglary was 17 or younger at the time the offense took place. In those cases, the statute will run for 20 years.
- Kidnapping of individuals over age 17, 5 years. The state may not pursue charges of kidnapping after five years. In kidnapping cases involving victims younger than age 17, the statute will run for 20 years.
- Miscellaneous felonies, 3 years. All felonies not otherwise outlined within the Texas Code fall under a three year statute of limitations. These felonies may include certain assault and drug felonies.
This list only includes a representative section of statutes currently valid in Texas. Factors that may affect the statute of limitations include the involvement of a child, the amount of goods or money stolen, and the presence of DNA evidence. In addition to these state-based statutes, some crimes (e.g., terrorism, major art theft, etc.) may fall under federal jurisdiction and follow a different set of statutes.
Misdemeanor Statutes of Limitations in Texas
For all misdemeanor crimes in Texas, the recognized statute of limitations is two years. Misdemeanors include certain DWI charges, marijuana possession of up to four ounces, and theft and vandalism if the damage equals $2,500 or less. When the statute of limitations ends, an accused individual can walk away without fear of further prosecution for the crime in question.
The Role of a Defense Attorney in Cases Involving Statutes of Limitations
If a defendant or his/her attorney never brings up the statute of limitations, the prosecution can freely pursue a case. To use the statute of limitations as a defense strategy, the defense must raise the issue and petition for case dismissal. If during the initial case, the defense fails to challenge the statute of limitations, they may raise the issue on ex-post-facto – that the act was legal at the time – grounds during the first appeal.
A defense attorney may use challenges to the time limits for certain crimes to reduce the number of charges a defendant faces or to fight for a full case dismissal. Determining when the statute of limitations begins on a crime can play a crucial role in whether a statute of limitations has passed.
Since many different factors may alter the statute of limitations applied, a defense attorney may play an invaluable role in answering questions and building an appropriate defense strategy. To determine the statute of limitations for specific charges and circumstances, contact Brett Podolsky at 713-227-0087. A free and confidential legal consultation may clarify how the statute of limitations applies in your situation.