How Long is the Statute of Limitations for Federal Crimes?

The statute of limitations for any crime is a law that specifies the deadline before which the government must begin a formal prosecution or be forever barred from doing so. Statutes of limitations were included in ancient Greek and Roman law. English law, from which the U.S. takes much of its legal tradition, began including statutes of limitations in the 17th century. 


The statute of limitations for federal crimes in the United States is found in 18 U.S.C. 3282. That section declares the statute of limitations for federal crimes is five years, “except as otherwise expressly provided by law.” That means that, generally, for someone to be indicted on a federal crime, the indictment must be issued no later than five years from the date the crime was committed. But many federal statutes expressly provide for different statutes of limitations, always longer than the general limit of five years. 


Legal rules like the statute of limitation illustrate how many defenses and strategies experienced lawyers think about automatically after years of criminal defense practice. When the lawyers at Stechschulte Nell listen to a story or read a narrative in a written report, they reflexively analyze the fact pattern in minute detail, spotting issues that can present possible avenues to challenge the prosecution. In this blog, we’ll explain how many variations there are in the law limiting defining when it is too late to prosecute someone for a crime. If you have questions, contact our office to speak with one of our certified criminal defense attorneys. 


Why Have Any Statute of Limitation? 


The purpose of a statute limiting the time within which someone can be prosecuted for a crime is to protect people from being accused of criminal activity (or civil wrongdoing) when so much time has passed that the accused can’t defend themselves.  


Proof must come from evidence provided by a witness’s testimony, physical evidence, or admissible records. But time fades memories, deteriorates or destroys physical evidence, and documents are not useful if their authors are unable to recall the circumstances leading to their creation. 


To allow every crime to be prosecuted regardless of the passage of time would be asking our court system to find the truth when no reliable evidence survives to inform the verdict.  


Statute of Limitation Is Not an Automatic Bar to Prosecution — It’s an Affirmative Defense 


It’s natural to think that once the statute of limitations has run out a prosecutor would not be able to indict someone and then convict a defendant at trial. But that assumption would be wrong.  


Despite the expiration of a statute of limitation for a particular crime, the government can still indict you, take you to trial, convict you, and sentence you to prison. 


Defense Must Raise the Statute of Limitations and Move to Dismiss  


The statute of limitation is what is known as an affirmative defense which means the defense must raise the issue and move to dismiss the indictment as barred by the expiration of time. If the defense fails to raise the statute of limitations issue as a defense before or during the trial, then the defense is waived, and a conviction may stand.


Learn More> Can You Expunge a Federal Crime in Florida?  


Some Crimes Are So Serious that No Federal Statute of Limitation Applies 


The federal law disallowing most federal indictments from issuing more than five years after the crime occurred does not apply to “capital crimes.” 


Capital crimes have no statute of limitations. A person who commits a capital offense under federal law can be indicted and prosecuted at any time until the end of their life. (If the government intentionally delays an indictment for a substantial time to gain a prejudicial advantage over the defendant, then a due process objection might prevail.) 


What counts as a federal capital crime?  


A federal capital crime is any offense under federal law for which the penalty of imprisonment for life or the death penalty may be imposed. 


  • murder committed in a wide range of specific fact patterns relating to matters under the jurisdiction of the federal government,  
  • espionage, 
  • treason,  
  • destruction of aircraft, motor vehicles, or related facilities resulting in death, 
  • civil rights offenses resulting in death, 
  • genocide, 
  • mailing injurious articles with intent to kill or resulting in death, 
  • terrorist murder in the U.S. or another country, 
  • hijacking aircraft resulting in death, 
  • torture resulting in death committed outside the U.S. by a U.S. national or foreign national on U.S. soil, 
  • sexual offenses against children, 
  • and others 


In addition to all of the capital offenses that are not subject to any federal statute of limitation, there is a list of federal criminal laws that describe particular criminal offenses, and which specify a particular statute of limitation that differs from the five-year general limitation period. 


Federal Crimes with Statutes of Limitations Longer than the General Five-Year Time Limit 


The federal laws often include statutes of limitations within a section of the law that applies only to the offense identified in that section. Here are some examples: 


  • tax evasion or failure to file a tax return — 6 years from the date of the crime 
  • fraud against the U.S. involving $1,000,000 or more —7 years from the date of the crime 
  • bank fraud or RICO predicated on bank fraud — 10 years from the date of the crime 
  • mail fraud — 10 years from the date of the crime 
  • wire fraud — 10 years from the date of the crime 
  • embezzling from a federal institution —10 years from the date of the crime 
  • conspiracy to commit a federal crime —  the applicable statute begins to run on the date of the “last act” 
  • immigration offenses — 10 years from the date of the crime. 



Consult with Experienced, Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers in Tampa 


Practicing criminal defense law requires an intense and sustained commitment to protecting the rights of people accused of offenses who are being prosecuted by federal or state government authorities. Only after years of experience can an attorney effectively analyze every fact pattern and spot every issue. Other lawyers who thought they were competent actually missed the expiration of a statute of limitation and allowed their clients to be imprisoned.  


Get the expertise you need to receive the benefit of the law. Call Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law for a case review today; 813-280-1244. 

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