The statute of limitations, in the context of criminal cases, is an enactment of law that sets a time limit for prosecuting a crime based on the date on which the offense is committed. As the U.S. Supreme Court put it in Toussie v. United States, 397 U.S. 112 (1970), the purpose of such a statute is to limit a person’s exposure to criminal liability to a fixed period of time following the actions in question. The limitation protects people from “having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts have become obscured by the passage of time.” It also encourages law enforcement officials to investigate suspected criminal activity promptly.
The limitations period will vary depending on the severity of the offense, with the legislature allowing more time for more serious crimes. In D.C., for example, there is no time limitation for murder in either the first or second degree or for murder of a law enforcement officer or public safety employee. The limitations period for felonies is generally 6 years. Most misdemeanors need to be brought within three years after being committed. There are separate limitations periods for sexual assault offenses, with a 15-year period for first-degree sexual abuse charges and a 10-year period for other degrees of sexual assaults.
The limitations period in D.C. begins at the time every element of the offense has been committed or, in the case of a continuing course of conduct, at the time that course of conduct – or the defendant’s complicity therein – terminates. The limitations period ends at the time prosecution commences. A prosecution is considered to have commenced at the time: (1) an indictment is entered, (2) an information is filed, or (3) a complaint is filed before a judicial officer empowered to issue an arrest warrant assuming that the warrant is issued without unreasonable delay. D.C. Code § 23-113.