Federal Criminal Statute of Limitations | How Long Can the Feds Prosecute?

federal statute of limitations

A federal statute of limitations dictates the time in which a criminal case can be filed in court. Failure to file before the statute of limitations bars a case from being instituted. This protects the quality of evidence and the ability of both sides to prepare an adequate case. Statutes of limitations on federal cases vary depending on multiple factors. Additionally, in some instances, the statute of limitations can be paused or delayed.

Federal Statute of Limitations – Generally

The federal statute of limitations for most offenses is five years from the time the offense occurred. 18 U.S.C. § 3282.

Federal Crimes that have no Statute of Limitations

There are some serious crimes that do not carry a statute of limitations and can be prosecuted at any time:

  • Any crime where death could be punishment.18 U.S.C. § 3281.
  • Crimes involving terrorism that results in serious bodily injury or create a risk of death or serious injury. 18 U.S.C. § 3286.
  • Crimes, including kidnapping, sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation, where the victim is a minor. 18 U.S.C. § 3299.

Federal Crimes with Longer Statute of Limitations

In many other cases, the statute of limitation still exists, but is longer than the general five-year rule. These include, but are not limited to:

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Crimes involving terrorism18 U.S.C. 32868 years
Wartime Fraud18 U.S.C. 32875 years from end of war
Child Kidnap, Sexual or Physical Abuse18 U.S.C. 3283Longer of 10 years or life of victim
Crimes involving nationality, citizenship, or passports18 U.S.C. 329110 years
Crimes against Financial Institutions18 U.S.C. 329310 years
Theft of major artwork18 U.S.C. 329420 years
Non-capital Arson offenses18 U.S.C. 329510 years
Trafficking offenses18 U.S.C. 329810 years
Recruitment of child soldiers18 U.S.C. 330010 years
Federal tax evasion/fraud against the IRS26 U.S.C. 65316 years
Major Fraud against the US18 U.S.C. 10317 years
Data Offenses under Atomic Energy Laws42 U.S.C. 227810 years
Offenses under Subversive Activities Control Act50 U.S.C. 78310 years

Federal Crimes with Shorter Statute of Limitations

Some crimes also have shorter statutes of limitations. These are somewhat more limited and in specific instances. In tax crimes, most statutes of limitations are three years instead of five years (not including those stated in the chart above). 26 U.S.C. § 6531. Criminal contempt’s statute of limitations is only one year long, if brought under certain parts of the code. 18 U.S.C § 3285.

There are certain crimes that have special rules regarding the beginning of the statute of limitations. The running of limitations typically begin after the last element has been satisfied. In the case of conspiracy, there will be many overt acts in the commission of the ultimate offense. The statute of limitations for conspiracy will begin at the final overt act. Fiswick v. United States, 329 U.S. 211, 216 (1946). Other criminal acts are also considered continuing crimes for the purposes of the statute of limitations including: escape or flight from custody or prosecution, possession of contraband, kidnapping, concealment of assets of in bankruptcy, and failure to pay child support.

Statute of limitations can also be delayed from beginning by other circumstances. In cases where DNA is involved, the statute of limitations is delayed for the time it takes to use the DNA for identification. 18 U.S.C. § 3297. The statute of limitations, in that circumstance, begins to run after the DNA has identified the wrongdoer. Under another statute, the use of DNA in an aggravated sexual abuse case to procure an indictment for the DNA profile suspends the statute of limitations. 18 U.S.C. § 3282. When an indictment or information is dismissed, the government gets an additional six months on the statute of limitations. 18 U.S.C. § 3288. When the information or evidence needed for the prosecution is located in a foreign area, the court is able to suspend the statute of limitations to accommodate. 18 U.S.C. § 3292. In addition, any person fleeing from justice shall not enjoy the benefit of the statute of limitations. 18 U.S.C. § 3290.

If you have been charged with a federal offense and are looking for an attorney, give us a call at (817) 203-2220 or contact us using the form below.

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Benson Varghese

Managing Partner at Varghese Summersett PLLC
Benson Varghese is the founder and Managing Partner of Varghese Summersett PLLC. He is a prolific writer and has authored hundreds of articles about criminal law in Texas and at the Federal level. His articles have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Above the Law, and have been selected as Top Blogs by the State Bar of Texas. He was named the Young Lawyer of the Year in 2019 by the Tarrant County Bar Association. Benson led the firm to become one of the 500 fastest growing businesses in the United States by Inc 500 Magazine in 2018. In the same year, the firm was named the Best Law Firm in Fort Worth by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The lawyers at Varghese Summersett PLLC exclusively handle criminal defense matters.
Benson Varghese