In the law, a statutory time limit after which a person cannot be prosecuted for a crime (or similarly, cannot be sued for committing a tort or some other violation of civil legal duties).note
This is highly variable by jurisdiction and the kind of crime, but the basic principle is that if a suspect is not brought to trial within a reasonable amount of time, the law cannot keep pursuing them. Some jurisdictions "start the clock" when the crime/tort is committed, others when a crime/tort is discovered—this one is particularly common on the civil tort side, where product-liability (like drugs later found to be unsafe) and toxic torts (companies dumping chemicals into the water/air/whatever) typically only cause damage years down the road (e.g. by causing cancer)—and there may be circumstances that extend the allowable time. Of course the big exception is the crime of murder, having no statute of limitations in most jurisdictions. Note however that its civil equivalent, the tort of wrongful death, usually does have a statute of limitations, and when it doesn't, the equitable doctrine of laches
applies. Other "higher criminal order" crimes such as rape or treason may have statutes of limitations depending on the jurisdictions.
The most common use of the statute of limitations in fiction is for a criminal to be within a very short time of reaching that deadline, and the police desperately trying to find them (or the necessary evidence) before the clock runs out.
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Anime & Manga
- One story in the Detective Conan manga has this occur, with the criminal having to stay hidden extra time because the clock didn't "run" while he was out of the country. He's still arrested because he forgot that his plane was delayed landing until after midnight, giving the police a whole extra day.
- At the time the story was written, Japan had a 15 year statute of limitations for murder, this was changed to 25 years in 2005.
- In 2010, Japan abolished the statute of limitations for murder and other crimes that result in the deaths of persons, as well as extending the statute of limitations for other crimes.
- Similarly, a desperate mother keeps her son Akio locked away in their home's basement after he accidentally killed his dad in a fight, hoping to keep him away from the police's reach until the statute is over. Akio actually does want to go to jail and atone, so by the time Conan stumbles on them both, he's this close to lose his mind out of despair and the years-long isolation. in the end, Conan helps Akio to convince his mother to let him go, and they willingly turn themselves in within the statute.
- Tenchi Muyo!: Ryoko escapes punishment for her crimes on the planet Jurai because the Statute of Limitations ran out just after she was found and before she could be arrested. Didn't stop Ayeka from taking Ryoko in trying to find Yosho, NOR did it stop Ayeka's mom Misaki from slapping the bill from reconstruction on her.
- A chapter of Black Jack has a robber days away from running the clock out and the police officer chasing him crash near the doctor's house. (They're kept in separate rooms, so don't realize who the other is.) By the time the robber is healed, the time limit has expired—but Blackjack's fee is exactly the amount of money he stole.
- Combat Mecha Xabungle has a three-day limit as a plot point. The main character continues the pursuit of the criminal after the three days are up, so by definition he is breaking the law.
- In Hana no Ko Lunlun, the statute is used in the Italy arc. Lunlun befriends Dario, a former Punch Clock Villain from Sicily who helped in a robbery several years ago and is still sought after for it, but the statute is just one day away from finishing. Then Lunlun gets trapped in an airtight vault, and Dario is the only one able to help her get out of there alive. He hesitates at first since this means the police working in the case will catch him (and for worse, the Inspector Javert working on his case is the one leading the team), but decides to show up anyway and opens the vault, saving Lunlun's life — and as he's doing so, the statute is gone by five minutes. The policemen lets Dario go as a free man, even making good comments on both his bravery and his lockpicking skills.
- In the Isaac Asimov (very) short story "A Loint of Paw," a criminal called Stein travels to the future in a time machine after his crime, to take advantage of the statute of limitations. When he is caught, a legal battle ensues as to whether he should be imprisoned or not. The judge's resolution is the punchline to the story: "A niche in time saves Stein".
- The ending to the A.A. Fair Lam / Cool novel Beware the Curves turns on the statute of limitations.
Live Action Television
- An episode of the 1950s Superman TV show had a criminal who'd locked himself in an impenetrable bunker for the duration. Not so impenetrable, as Superman used a one-time Intangible Man power to get in without breaking it, and tampered with the internal clock to make it run fast.
- In an episode of NCIS, a war veteran turns himself in for murdering a comrade in arms several decades ago. Despite his half-senile state and the reluctance of the team to investigate (he was a Medal of Honor recipient and the crime happened on Iwo Jima during WWII), the fact that there is no limitation on murder forces them to treat it as an open case.
- Sometimes invoked on Cold Case as the statute of limitations has expired on some lesser offenses, allowing the suspects to be more honest about what happened involving the murder that's the main focus of the story.
- In one case, a criminal tried to use it to get away with insurance fraud but the cops told him the clock started running not when the crime took place but when they started investigating it.
- The detectives of Law & Order: Criminal Intent are on the trail of a racial-based beating that left the victim mentally handicapped and paralyzed well after the statute of limitations has run out; the district attorney plans to file charges for murder as soon as the victim dies, since there's no statute of limitations for murder.
- Formerly, that could have potentially run afoul of another deadline: The "Year and a Day rule" which prevents assault charges from escalating to murder unless the victim succumbs to their wounds within that time frame.
- An episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation revisits a previous case when the rapist who left his victim in a coma goads her husband into taking her off life support. This made the husband responsible for her murder. Had she died of her wounds from the original assault he would have been charged with her murder.
- In one Mission: Impossible episode, the IMF convince a criminal that he has been in cryogenic suspension for several years and that the statute of limitations on his crimes has expired. Involves a double Faked Rip Van Winkle.
- The Twilight Zone story where criminals rob a bank, then go into suspended animation cells that one of the criminals has invented! to escape the statute of limitations. It works, but when they get out the gold they stole is worthless.
- One episode of Law & Order: SVU, "Limitations" dealt with this. Cragen was pressured to reopen three rape investigations after they were proven to be linked by DNA evidence, and they only had a matter of days for each one. He was less than pleased the higher ups deliberately waited to give it to him.
- There's an episode of Murder, She Wrote where a bank robber returns to town after the statute expires. (Also, it was assumed he had been killed while fleeing, so the police never issued a fugitive warrant.)
- One episode of The Rockford Files involved a robbery that was a few days away from its statute of limitations running out. Organized crime knew who the thief was, and naturally tried to get their hands on half a million dollars that would very soon be clean.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Who Mourns for Morn?" the statue of limitations is about to expire on a big robbery that (it turns out) Morn had been involved with. The others in the robbery come to collect their portions of the loot.
- Brazilian soap-opera "As Filhas da Mãe": Said Mãe (Mother) fled Brazil to avoid being framed with murder. 30 years later, she came back and the statute of limitations (yes, there is one for murder in Brazil) now protects her from being imprisoned for the murder.
- In an episode of Rizzoli & Isles a man thinks he's in the clear for the rape of a girl he went to high school with, because it's been fifteen years. However, it turns out the girl was only 15 years old at the time of the rape, and the statute of limitations is fifteen years from the day the victim turns 16, so he can be arrested.
- On Castle Ryan used to work undercover and infiltrated an Irish gang. When he was pulled out, his cover identity was preserved by making it seem like he was going to be charged with numerous crimes and had to flee the state. Years later, when Ryan has to go back undercover with the gang, he claims that the statute of limitations has expired on those crimes and he was thus free to return to New York.
- In Ace Attorney, the statute of limitations running out on DL-6 is what kicks off the events surrounding case 1-4.
- Similarly, worries that SL-9 will never be solved before the statute runs out prompts Marshall to approach Goodman, the head detective, for help. Goodman initially refuses. When the time comes to transfer the evidence, though, he asks to reopen the case and give the evidence to Marshall, but Gant murders him and orders Lana to take the fall.
- The statute of limitations is also an important point in Gyakuten Kenji 2, in the IS-7 incident, the precursor to DL-6. It happened a year before DL-6, yet Edgeworth manages to solve the case even two years after it.
- One episode of Recess parodied this. TJ and Vince became fans of a Hardy Boys Captain Ersatz. They ended up solving a mystery where the villain removed the head of a statue and tried to extort the city into paying him to return it. His plan was to wait until the statute of limitations expired and sell it back to the city.
- Bulgaria has a 30 year statute of limitations on murder- so no-one can now be prosecuted in that country for the London murder of Georgi Markov (who was killed by ricin injected via a modified umbrella) in 1978.
- Sweden had a 25 year statute of limitations on murder up until July, 2010. It was removed a mere eight months before they would've been forced to drop the investigation of the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme back in 1986 had it not been removed.
- The Wheaton Bandit was responsible for as many as 16 armed robberies around Wheaton, Illinois s western suburban of Chicago from 2002 to 2006. The five-year statute of limitations ran out in December of 2011.