In the law, a statute of limitations is a statutory time limit after which a person cannot be prosecuted for a crime, or 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. The big exception is murder, which has 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 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 beginning.
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 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 become owner of that property if the original owner does not exercise their right to recover their property in a time considered significant by law (basically a legal version of "finders keepers, losers weepers"), 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 (basically, 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.
- Occurs a few times in Case Closed, mainly because Japan had a 15-year statute of limitations for murder. This was changed to 25 years in 2005, and 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.
- In one story, the criminal had to lie low for longer than expected because his time spent overseas does not count towards the statute of limitations. He's still arrested because when he came back to Japan, his plane was delayed and could not land until after midnight, giving the police a whole extra day.
- 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 expired, 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.
- All for Nothing: Meg Langslow Mysteries: We'll Always Have Parrots: Michaels Nervous Wreck agent is a former 70s radical who changed his name and took a job he never really liked after breaking into a government office and burning draft cards. It turns out that he broke into the wrong office and burned dog licenses instead, and even if he had been burning draft cards, since no one got hurt, the statute of limitations would have expired many, many years ago.
- Comes up briefly in The Millenium Trilogy. Retired Badass Henrik Vanger is able to convince Intrepid Reporter Mikael Blomkvist to go Revisiting the Cold Case by offering Blomkvist a chance to take revenge on Corrupt Corporate Executive Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, who has recently humiliated Blomkvist (by which we mean, gotten him convicted of libel, as well as jail time which is Adapted Out of The Film of the Book). Blomkvist goes for it... only to find that, since Wennerstrom worked for Vanger half a lifetime ago, all Vanger's evidence of his wrongdoing is decades past the statute of limitations. It's a reminder that, though Vanger is by no means a bad person, he's still a Snake Oil Salesman. (Also, Blomkvist still manages to get his revenge: his friend Lisbeth Salander — you know, the girl with the dragon tattoo? — is a Playful Hacker.)
- One The Hardy Boys Digest book had a white-collar criminal being blackmailed discover that his blackmailer had kept blackmailing him even after the statute of limitations expired, causing him to furiously set out to ruin the man in revenge.
- 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.
- Ironside: One two-part episode features a kidnapper who is blackmailing his reluctant accomplice over how the man killed someone in a bar fight years ago. The accomplice is pissed to find out that the statute of limitations for manslaughter in the state where the crime occurred ran out years ago.
- In one episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, detectives are finally able to find evidence to convict two men of a racially-motivated beating that left the victim mentally handicapped and paralyzed, but it's well after the statute of limitations has run out. The district attorney states his intent 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.
- In one episode of Law & Order, McCoy is faced with the case of a pedophile priest whose known crimes are all well outside the statute of limitations. After learning that said priest tried to pay off a cop (who was a former victim of his) not to go public about his crimes, he puts the man on trial anyway, arguing that the bribery is a perpetuation of the previous crimes and thus resets the statute of limitations. (The judge actually agrees to this fairly quickly, but it turns out to be much harder than expected to prove that the bribe actually happened.)
- Comes up somewhat regularly in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, since they tend to handle more crimes that come with such a statute.
- The aptly titled episode "Limitations" had detectives desperately struggling to find a serial rapist (who hadn't been active in years) just days before the statute of limitations expired on his crimes. It expires on two of his rapes, but they arrest him just in time for the third.
- In another episode, DNA links a suspect in one crime to an unrelated rape case, but that case is beyond the statute. It's linked by MO to several more recent rapes, but there was no DNA in those, and the victims can't identify the suspect. It turns out their suspect is not the rapist; he had used another person's blood to fool the DNA test to clear himself in the original case in which he was a suspect, only to end up on the hook for the crimes of the man whose blood he took. Once detectives sort this out, they catch the real rapist in the act, and thus are presumably able to convict.
- Another case involves a young man accusing his coach of molesting him when he was a boy. It initially appears that his crimes are outside the statute, but when they learn that much of his abuse was committed while they were traveling to games (including out of state), Cabot determines that they can charge him in Boston, which has a different statute. Unfortunately, the victim is found dead shortly thereafter, negating this breakthrough and forcing them to look for another way to get the coach.
- In "Recall" a young woman is raped and identifies a man named Martin Trenway as the one who did it, and then another woman (Heather Stark) comes forward and says he raped her years ago as well. They go to trial with it, but then the defense comes up with concrete evidence that Trenway could not have raped Heather. ADA Novak sadly notes that the statute of limitations on her case is now up, and her rapist will never be convicted even if he is identified.
- 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 (1959): In the episode "The Rip Van Winkle Caper'', 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. Not to mention by the time the audience learns this all of them are dead.
- 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 statute 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.
- It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Frank mentions during his days as a CEO, he used Sexual Extortion on women who dont have any experience to hire them, he mentions this as the reason why he wont get convicted for it, until Dennis reminds him that they may revoke statute of limitations.
- In another episode, Frank gets weary about how he used to run a Vietnamese sweatshop with at least a few fatalities and admits all this to a cab driver while forgetting he's still being recorded. The cab driver brings up statute of limitations to not worry about it.
- 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 an 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 paid 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 a one-on-one Q-and-A session, and causes great trouble to the firm.
- One Perry Mason features a former embezzler being blackmailed. While the statute of limitations has expired, the scandal threatens the marriage prospects of his daughters, and he'd have to pay back the money (which his company is built upon) once he was exposed.
- In one The Mentalist episode, when a suspect is asked why he'd been having an argument with the murder victim he replies by asking about the statute of limitations for dealing a certain kind of drug before giving an answer after finding out that he can no longer be prosecuted for that.
- Barney Miller: In "Uniform Day", Dietrich is after a fugitive who's been on the lam since 1973, and he has no time to banter with Barney, because the seven-year statute of limitations expires at midnight.
Barney: 1973!? Nixon was still President!
Dietrich: No, he's got an airtight alibi for this one.
- 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 statutes 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 limitations 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 to 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 suburbs 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.
- This is often cited as one more tragedy of the Central Park Five case. Not only were four boys imprisoned for a rape they didn't commit, but detectives' fervent (but erroneous) belief that they had solved the case meant that the real rapist was never, and now can never be, punished for his crime.
- For much of history, many jurisdictions have retained a variation of this concept colloquially known as the "Year And A Day" law, stating that a criminal can't be charged with murder unless the victim's death occurs within that window of time after the crime was committed. With the advent of modern medicine and life support, several US states have begun striking down these laws, though they only apply to crimes committed after the law was changed.
- During the sexual assault trial of disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein, jurors heard the testimony of Annabella Sciorra. Given that the assault occurred during the '90s, it could not be charged in of itself, though it was used to establish a pattern for the charge of predatory sexual assault. After the jury deliberated for several days, they ultimately decided to acquit Weinstein of such charges, in favor of convicting him of lesser offenses.
- This was a problem prosecutors faced when trying to charge Bill Cosby for his many sexual assaults. The statute of limitations had expired for most of the cases (the earliest incident being from the 1960s) but he was charged in 2014 for an assault that happened in January 2004 shortly before the statute had expired (the relevant state, Cosby's native Pennsylvania, having a 21-year statute of limitations at that time). As a result, several states have introduced bills to either extend or eliminate the statutes of limitations for sexual offenses.
- Normally, there is a 5-year SOL for most federal crimes. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) expanded the SOL to an indefinite basis on a criminal level, depending on when the last not the first crimes were committed for the entity. Also, state-level racketeering convictions can now be used on the federal level as courts have deemed it exempt from double jeopardy. This and a focus on psychological behavior were used against The Mafia in 1985, enabling prosecutors to go after other criminal gangs.