What is a statute of limitations?
A statute of limitations is an enactment in a common law legal system that sets the maximum time after an event that legal proceedings based on that event may be initiated. In civil law systems, similar provisions are typically part of the civil code or criminal code and are often known collectively as periods of prescription.
What are the various statutes of limitations in the United States?
There are a number of statutes of limitation in operation in the United States over all types of legal matters including criminal law at a federal level, bankruptcy, state laws relating to crimes, civil liability, torts, product liability and a range of other forms of legal liability.
Why do we have them?
Common law legal systems might have a statute, for example, limiting the time for prosecution of a debt or crimes designated as misdemeanors to two years after the offense occurred. Under such a statute, if a person is discovered to have committed a misdemeanor three years earlier, the time has expired for the person to be prosecuted.
While it may seem unfair to forbid prosecution of crimes that law enforcement can later prove to a standard required by law (cf., e.g. beyond a reasonable doubt, clear and convincing evidence, and preponderance of the evidence), the purpose of a statute of limitations or its equivalent is to ensure that the possibility of punishment for an act committed long ago cannot give rise to either a person’s incarceration or the criminal justice system’s activation. In short, unless the crime is deemed exceptionally heinous – for example, murder, to which the statute does not generally apply – social justice as enacted through law says that lesser crimes from long ago are best left alone so as not to detract attention from more serious crimes.