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 Known as a (period of) prescription (or, sometimes, extinctive prescription) in Civil Law countries. The Other Wiki has a lengthy article on them.
This is highly variable by jurisdiction and the nature of the crime/cause of action, but the basic principle is that if legal action is not initiated against someone who violated the law within a particular 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. Another major exception, per international law, is genocide. Other "higher criminal order" crimes such as rape or treason may have statutes of limitations depending on the jurisdictions.
Also do note that, whatever the case, many times the passing of the time period of statute of limitations may be frozen (either by pausing or delaying; in practice, all this means extending) via the concept of tolling.
Yet again, note that for stuff other than crimes or taxes the statute of limitations only extinguishes the pretention (i.e. the possibility of seeing debts recognised and collecting them via the judicial system), not the actual right, that if one pays the expired debt in part or full (s)he does not have the right to get the money back, and if one does pay the debt, or if one agrees to pay the debt, or if the creditor sues one and (s)he doesn't contest the case (by stating the time has run out or any other thing) the statute of limitations starts running again from the very begginning.
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 to make a solid case) before the clock runs out. Another option is to set up a twist ending by having the criminal drop his guard and even boast about his deeds because he thinks that the clock has run out, only to find out the hard way that he overlooked something (e.g. perhaps he committed another crime in addition to the obvious one, and the clock on the other one hasn't run out yet) and isn't untouchable after all.
A statute of repose, often conflated with the statute of limitations, works differently because it is focused on the criminal/tortfeasor/etc. being immunized from long-term liabilitynote , but it also limits the time during which one can sue another for wrongdoing, albeit from a point in time which it may not be possible for the injured party to know the damage; the elapsing period is also absolute and cannot be tolled like in a statute of limitations; and, the statute of repose actually extinguishes the right and not just the pretention, unlike the statute of limitations (so there's no "running again" the statute of repose). The statute of repose is known as expiry/expiration when it comes to civil law systems (the actual word used is often a false friend of either the term caducity or of decadence), and in some of them may be, at least in some cases, negotiated between the parties instead of (or even in contradiction tonote ) the law, unlike prescription.
The doctrine of acquiescence is the same in international law and as regards to estoppel (basically the legal doctrine that one cannot go back on his/her word, acquiesence being estoppel by omission or, more technically, "estoppel by silence"), while adverse possession (and its civil law equivalents, usucapio/usucaption, sometimes known as acquisitive prescription), by which one's finding of another one's property, or one's use of another one's property as if it were their own,note entitles one to acquire title tonote that property if the original owner does not exercise their right to recover their property in a time considered significant by law,note is this in property law. Desuetude (a certain statute cannot be applied because it hasn't been used in a long time, even if it has never been formally repealednote ) and a sunset provision (a clause in a statute that makes it cease having effects after a cut-off date; more informally, it's as if the law repealed itself after some point in time) are the equivalent of this for legislation itself.
Under its adverse possession guise, this greatly helps avert the Property Line trope.
- 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.
- Another case within the old laws fits here perfectly. Matsumoto is hell bent on resolving a string of murders that is That One Case for him: three of them ( one being the murder of his partner) took place 20 years so they're already caducated, but the last one is within the 15 year limit... and three days away from being definitely closed. Then the son of said last victim finds out who the killer is and does him in...
- 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.
- The post-apocalyptic setting of Combat Mecha Xabungle is so lawless that crimes are only punishable for three-days after they're committed. 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 used his ability to open all kinds of doors 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 Inspector Javert realises this and without any hesitation he 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".
- In Artemis Fowl, Billy Kong was set to get away with all of his crimes, until Butler remembered that he had once pulled a kitchen knife on a friend and that there was no statute of limitations on murder.
- The ending to the A.A. Fair Lam / Cool novel Beware the Curves turns on the statute of limitations.
- 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 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.
- Discussed in Orange Is the New Black. Piper's crime was committed ten years prior to her conviction. The statute of limitations for her crime is twelve years.
- On Elementary a man appears to escape justice because the statute of limitations on a vicious assault expires an hour before the police identify him and are able to get an arrest warrant. However, Sherlock is able to prove that the man left the country for a day to go see a hockey game in Canada. If the perpetrator of a crime leaves the country, the principle of "tolling" can be applied and the statute of limitations is extended by the duration of the absence. This prevents criminals from fleeing the country and waiting out the statute of limitations in another country. In this case it means that the police have another day to file charges.
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver once did a segment on often-unregulated Evil Debt Collectors. It's noted that many specialize in cheaply buying debt that's supposed to be expired, which they try to collect anyway through tactics such as harassment, threats and name-calling. When they do so legally (or pseudo-legally), they use subterfuges like making silent phone calls then using the "yes" that people normally use to greet others in phone calls as an actual acceptance of consent to pay the debt, convincing people to pay just a part of the debt by telling them they forgive the rest then suing to collect it, or (actually legally) suing and expecting people not to contest (which they normally don't).
- In How I Met Your Mother episode "Last Forever: Part Two", Ted mentions to his fiancee Tracy in a scene from the future that the statute of limitations for marriage proposals is five years, so he proceeds to repropose right there.
- In Suits episode "Discovery" (episode 4, season 2), Harvey Specter and Mike Ross are faced with an old case, in which Harvey defended Coastal Motors against a driver, Frank Randall, from a product liability case arising from an accident on the Merritt Parkway in which the latter was involved (he claimed it was because of Coastal's car hood) and ultimately held liable as the driver with a long history of substance abuse (although Harvey himself states that Coastal deserved to have lost). The statute of limitations is key because Harvey states it has run off, but as the driver's counsel and Harvey's arch-rival Travis Tanner of law firm Smith and Devane discovers a internal memo, supposedly among the piles of evidence offered by Coastal Motors's side, that shows Coastal knew of engineering defects on the car that could have caused the accident, there was now evidence of fraudulent concealment on the company and Harvey's side, for which there is no statute of limitations, so he launches a lawsuit against Harvey, his law firm Pearson Hardman and Coastal for fraud. In the end, it is discovered that the memo would never have held up in court anyway as it was forged by Travis (although, as revealed by a former employee Harvey went to talk to in the course of his investigation and who couldn't talk because she signed a confidentiality agreement, those engineering defects the "memo" talked about were actually real and Coastal Motors did commit fraud, using Harvey and his law firm as foils in their conspiracy. They had fixed all problems in newly manufactured cars, but hadn't payed the owners of the previous ones; Harvey goads Coastal's CEO into doing the latter under the threat of ratting out on everything he did). Later in the episode, Donna Paulsen (Harvey's secretary) actually discovers the original of that memo, signed by her as having received it, and tries at first to dispose of it in the next episode as the family of the now-deceased Randall continue their lawsuit against the firm, although she doesn't know what to actually do with it. She ends doing so after the lawyer the firm hired to defend them makes her nervous in an one-on-one Q-and-A session, and causes great trouble to the firm.
- The Principalities of Glantri in Mystara has a very tight statute of limitations. If a criminal isn't apprehended within 7 days of the crime, he can't be punished for it (at least not legally.)
- Saints Row 2: When you first meet him, Johnny Gat is on trial for 387 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Gat tries to argue that with statutes of limitations being what they are, it should be closer to 250, only to be told by an irate judge that there is no statute of limitations on murder.
- Ace Attorney:
- The statute of limitations running out on a murder trial is what kicks off the events surrounding case 1-4. The trial ends up taking place on the last day before the statute of limitations runs out, and Phoenix has to take down an Amoral Attorney that has never lost.
- Worries that the SL-9 incident will never be trulynote solved before the two-year 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 plays a huge role in Gyakuten Kenji 2, in the IS-7 incident, the precursor to DL-6. It happened a year before DL-6 in December of 2000, and even though someone was convicted as an accomplice to murder after a lengthy year-long trial (this was before the 3-day trial system was implemented into the Ace Attorney universe), the culprit himself was never found until around 18 years later in 2019. The real killer, after some persuasion, confessed, confident in the fact he can't be charged or convicted due to statues of limitations having expired 3 years and 4 months prior. However, Edgeworth uses some legal details and holes to show that, in actual fact, the limitations aren't yet over (the fact that if a suspect flees the country, the limitations are put on hold until they return, and that if any possible accomplices are put on trial, then the limitations are frozen until a verdict is reached, both of which combined put the limitations period at 19 years, which they were just within), allowing the bad guy to get his just-desserts.
Although, there's a "loop-hole" within how the limitation extensions work. The period of extension that is caused by an accomplice's trial duration relies on the successful outcome of said trial. Therefore, should the accomplice be found guilty, the extension of the limitations relies on the accomplice's guilt. The IS-7 Incident came upon this problem when, as explained above, one of the extensions caused by the falsely convicted defendant's trial caused the limitations to reach past the 4 months that it was otherwise just short of reaching. The guilt of the real killer made it clear that the accomplice was falsely charged under a faulty trial. However, if the "accomplice" is retried and found innocent, then the extension caused by the initial trial 18 years prior becomes void, causing the limitations to once again be short by 4 months. AKA: The killer's guilt relies on the defendant's guilt as an accomplice, but the defendant's guilt is now proven false due to the killer's guilt. The legal version of the Catch-22 Dilemma.
- In Kevin & Kell, Douglas Squirrel's real identity as infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper is revealed and he is arrested. However, because the statute of limitation passed for most of the charges, along with being released early for good behavior, he only was jailed for about a year.note
- 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 wait until the statute of limitations expired to extort the city into paying him to return it. However, he only expects to get a few hundred dollars. The kids take it seriously, as that seems like a lot to them, but it's plain to the audience that the man wasted years of his life pursuing a pathetically small amount of money.
- Gravity Falls: The titular town was founded by (ex-) President Quentin Trembley, and his lunacy was reflected with such things as a loony "Finders Keepers" Law, which essentially meant that, as long as you have physical possession of an object, it is legally yours; and if someone else comes along and steals it, it is legally theirs — even if you could legally prove that they stole it from you, if you can't steal it back, then well... "losers weepers" (this latter one provides a pretty big source of drama during the first season finale). Weren't it for the "losers weepers" part of the law, and if it had a time schedule for someone to claim their property back before it became the other person's property, it would just be a perfectly normal adverse possession law.
- 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.
- In International law there is no statute of limitations on genocide, which is partly the cause of genocide denial.