What is the Statute of Limitations for Federal Mail Fraud?

Criminal statutes of limitations set a deadline before which the government may bring a criminal charge against someone whom it suspects committed a crime. If government prosecutors fail to file a formal charge against a suspect before the statute of limitations expires, then it loses the ability to ever charge that individual with committing the offense. 


Both state and federal jurisdictions limit the time prosecutors have to file certain criminal charges against individuals. One of the most important federal crimes subject to a statute of limitation is mail fraud.  


Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law, has extensive experience representing defendants in federal court from a wide range of criminal offenses, including mail fraud and wire fraud. In each and every case, our defense lawyers analyze the facts to determine if the statute of limitations has expired.  


This article explains how the statute of limitations works, when the statute of limitations is extended, and what happens if the defendant fails to raise the statute during their defense. 



What Is Mail Fraud? 


Mail fraud is a federal crime that involves using the United States Postal Service (USPS) or any interstate mail carrier to commit acts of fraud. Defined under 18 U.S.C. § 1341, mail fraud encompasses a wide range of deceptive practices aimed at defrauding individuals or entities of money, property, or honest services.  


Given its broad scope, the offense can include everything from simple scams to elaborate schemes involving complex financial transactions. 


The Statute of Limitations for Federal Mail Fraud 


For federal mail fraud, the statute of limitations is set at five years from the date the fraudulent act was committed. This five-year period is established under 18 U.S.C. § 3282(a), the general statute of limitations for most federal crimes not punishable by death.  


The statute of limitations begins to run the moment the fraud is complete or, in other words, when the last act involved in the fraudulent scheme has been executed or when the illicit mailing has occurred, whichever is later. 


Exceptions and Extensions 


While the five-year statute of limitations applies to the majority of mail fraud cases, there are important exceptions and circumstances in which the statute is extended or tolled. In these situations, prosecutors may still bring charges beyond the typical timeframe.  


Here are the special circumstances in which the government may file valid charges beyond the expiration of the usual statute of limitations:  


Discovery Rule 


In certain cases, the statute of limitations may not begin until the crime is discovered or should have been discovered with reasonable diligence. This exception is particularly relevant in complex fraud cases where the deception might not be immediately apparent. 


Ongoing Schemes 


For continuous fraudulent schemes involving multiple mailings over time, the statute of limitations may start from the date of the last act that was part of the fraud. 


Tolling for Fugitives  


The statute can be paused, or “tolled,” if the accused is actively avoiding prosecution by fleeing the jurisdiction or hiding from law enforcement agents. It’s important to note that mere absence from the suspect’s usual state of residence is not necessarily grounds to toll a statute of limitations.  


For example, if a suspect merely moved to another jurisdiction and is living or working openly, the government may not claim the person was actively evading detection or capture. However, living under an alias would be evidence supporting a government claim that the suspect was actively hiding. 


Specific Extensions 


Congress has provided for specific extensions of the statute of limitations for certain offenses. For instance, acts of terrorism or specific financial crimes against financial institutions can have extended limitation periods. 


For example, if a suspect’s DNA profile is found within the 5-year statute of limitation, the government may indict the unknown person as a “John Doe” before the statute of limitations expires. When the suspect is eventually identified, even if many years later, the indictment will be valid. 


The Purpose of the Statute of Limitations 


The statute of limitations for federal mail fraud and other offenses has an important purpose for both the prosecution and the defense. For prosecutors, the limitation period places a premium on timely investigation and charging decisions. Prosecutors must gather sufficient evidence to bring charges within this timeframe to serve their goal of holding guilty parties accountable for their actions. 


For defendants, the statute of limitations acts as an essential safeguard against stale charges. Over time, evidence is more difficult to obtain.  


Witness’s memories may fade, physical evidence deteriorates, compromising the accused person’s opportunity for a fair trial. The limitation period helps to ensure that cases are brought based on fresher, more reliable evidence.  


Using the Statute of Limitations as a Defense 


Prosecutors may try to identify ongoing fraudulent activity and use exceptions to extend the limitation period, widening the window for them to bring an otherwise time-barred indictment. 


But experienced federal mail fraud defense attorneys closely study every facet of the evidence to determine the timing of the alleged fraud and the applicability of the statute of limitations. Challenging the timing of the charges is sometimes an effective defense strategy that can successfully undermine a prosecutor’s case. 


The Importance of Raising a Statute of Limitations Defense 


The statute of limitations defense is an “affirmative defense.” This means that a federal defendant’s criminal defense lawyer must raise the statute of limitations claim before or during the trial. If an inexperienced or inattentive defense lawyer fails to notify the court of the expiration of the statute of limitations at some time before the trial of the case ends, the defense is waived. 


If a defendant’s lawyer fails to raise the statute of limitations defense in time, it is legally possible for the defendant to be convicted and sentenced to prison on a charge that was too old to be valid. 


Read More > Federal Wire Fraud Charges Hold Serious Consequences  


Experienced Federal Mail Fraud Defense Lawyers 


There is no room for errors or oversights when a defendant’s life and liberty are at stake in a federal criminal prosecution. Federal defense attorneys must perform with the highest level of professionalism and maintain an intense concentration on the case facts and the applicable law.  


In Florida, Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law bring a comprehensive knowledge of the law and skills earned during years of courtroom experience to every case in Tampa, Orlando, or Miami.  


If you need federal criminal defense representation in Florida, contact our office by calling 813-280-1244 today.  

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