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Dismissing Federal Charges Based on the Statute of Limitations

There is a five year statute of limitations for most federal crimes. See 18 U.S.C. § 3282.  However, some federal crimes, like murder and other federal crimes punishable by death, 18 U.S.C. § 3286(b), and certain sex offenses, 18 U.S.C. § 3299, have no statute of limitations. Some federal crimes have there own longer statute of limitations.  See e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3294 (20 years – Theft of Art Work); § 3295 (10 years – Arson); § 3293 (10 years – Fraud Affecting Financial Institutions); §3286(a) (8 years – Terrorism Related Offenses Not Involving Violence); § 1031 (6 years – Major Fraud Against United States); § 15 U.S.C. § 77x (6 years – Securities Fraud); 26 U.S.C. § 6531 (6 years – Tax Crimes); 18 U.S.C. § 402 (1 year – Contempt of Court). This list is not exhaustive by any means, and is meant to be a sampling of the different types of statutes of limitations contained in the federal code.

However, the law applicable to the federal statutes of limitations and arguments seeking the dismissal of charges based on violations of the statute of limitations is straight forward and well settled.

The purpose of a statute of limitations is to limit exposure to criminal prosecution to a certain fixed period of time following the occurrence of those acts the legislature has decided to punish by criminal sanctions. Such a limitation is designed to protect individuals from having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts may have become obscured by the passage of time and to minimize the danger of official punishment because of acts in the far-distant past. Such a time limit may also have the salutary effect of encouraging law enforcement officials promptly to investigate suspected criminal activity.

When evaluating a motion to dismiss a criminal indictment based on the statute of limitations, the indictment is examined “solely on the basis of the allegations made on its face, and such allegations are to be taken as true.” “[C]riminal statutes of limitations are to be liberally interpreted in favor of repose,” and ought not be extended unnecessarily.

A superseding indictment filed while the first indictment is still validly pending relates back to the original indictment and is not barred by the statute of limitations unless it broadens or substantially amends the charges in the first indictment. As such, the date of the original indictment tolls the limitations period as to alleged charge. Id.

As a general matter, the statutes of limitations clock begins to run when the crime is complete.  A crime is complete as soon as every element necessary to commit the crime has occurred. Id.  Once a criminal scheme is “executed,” the crime is complete and has ended, and additional conduct in furtherance of the criminal scheme does not extend the statute of limitations for that particular “execution.” Reitmeyer, supra at 1323 (Discussing application of statute of limitations to the Major Frauds Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1031, which provides fines and imprisonment for fraudsters perpetrating schemes to defraud the United States or engaged in other fraudulent schemes, and rejecting the government’s arguments to extend the statute of limitations for major frauds prosecuted under the Act, affirming dismissal of charges as beyond the applicable statute of limitations).

In certain limited cases, Courts have recognized that certain crimes involve a “continuing offense” which may extend the statute of limitations, but only if the explicit language of the charged substantive criminal statute compels such a result, or if the nature of the crime is such that “Congress must assuredly have intended it to be treated as a continuing one.” In Toussie the Supreme Court again held that “criminal limitations statutes are to be liberally interpreted in favor of repose,” and instructed that the doctrine of continuing offenses should be applied sparingly and in only limited circumstances noting that “… [t]he tension between the purpose of a statute of limitations and the continuing offense doctrine is apparent. Id. The former fixes a time limit by which the government must prosecute an individual following the occurrence of a criminal act, and “the latter, for all practical purposes, extends [this time limit] beyond [the statutory] term.” Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted). As such, as a general matter, such the latter is to be eschewed.

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