Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations refers to the time limit imposed by law in which a lawsuit or criminal can be filed. This time period varies by state, and by the type of case. Once the time limit specified by law passes, the lawsuit or criminal charges can no longer be filed. To explore this concept, consider the following statute of limitations definition.

Definition of Statute of Limitations


  1. A statute that specifies a length of time in which legal action can be taken.


1066     English law

What is Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is the maximum amount of time allowed for a party to initiate legal proceedings, whether filing criminal charges, or a civil lawsuit. Statutes of limitation are set by federal and state law, and the length of time varies according to the nature of the civil or criminal case. Generally speaking, minor crimes and civil issues have a short statute of limitations, while more serious crimes and civil issues have longer time limits. Some very serious crimes, such as murder, have no time limit.

The purpose of the statute of limitations in criminal matters is to ensure diligent prosecution of crimes, while evidence, and witness testimony, is fresh. Similar goals hold true for civil matters, as the time limitations help ensure people are not blindsided by civil lawsuits many years after some issue or incident occurred.

Example 1:

If Bob steals candy from a convenience store in Minnesota, prosecutors have two years to charge him for the crime. If those two years passes with no criminal charges being filed, Bob cannot be criminally charged or prosecuted.

Example 2:

If John commits murder in the state of Texas, there is no statute of limitations for that crime. If enough evidence is discovered to prosecute John, even after 20 years has passed, the state can still file criminal charges for the crime, and proceed with the prosecution.

What is Tolling the Statute of Limitations

Tolling the statute of limitations refers to a period of time in which the clock on the time limit is suspended. The statute of limitations can be thought of as a clock, that starts running at the time of the crime, or the civil incident, occurs, and stops running, or expires, at the time limit set by law. For instance, if the statute of limitations on a civil matter is two years, the clock runs for two years.

There are some circumstances, however, for which the clock is temporarily put on hold. This is referred to as tolling the statute of limitations. The goal of tolling the statute of limitations is to give plaintiffs fair opportunity to bring their case against a defendant.

Tolling of the statute of limitations in a case may be requested by making a motion to the court. In such a case, a hearing will be held in which the judge will decide if there is a good reason for putting the time limit on hold. There are certain traditional reasons that a statute of limitations may be tolled, or put on hold, and they are set by law. These include:

  • The plaintiff is a minor, in which case the statute does not begin until he reaches the age of majority.
  • The plaintiff is declared insane
  • The plaintiff is imprisoned for a felony conviction
  • The defendant has fled, or is otherwise not present in the state in which the crime was committed
  • The defendant is in bankruptcy

For example:

If John commits felony burglary, the statute of limitations goes into effect at the time of the crime. If he leaves the state where the crime was committed, the statute of limitations is tolled. This means that the statute of limitations is paused until John returns to the state.

Rape Charges Dismissed Due to Statute of Limitations

In 1982, a rapist broke into a University of Oklahoma student’s apartment in Norman, Oklahoma, then threatened the woman with a knife before raping her. At the time, the victim identified Thomas Webb as the rapist, from photos shown to her by police. Webb had no criminal history, and an alibi, but the 22-year old man convicted of the crime, and sentenced to 60 years in prison for the crime.

In 1996, Webb requested DNA testing, and was deemed innocent. He was released from prison after having served 14 years, based on the DNA results.

In 2006, Gilbert Harris was implicated in the crime after his DNA was entered into the national database by law enforcement in Louisiana. After the match between Harris’ DNA and the DNA profile from the rape case, a report was forwarded to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, where further investigation was made on the case.

Although Harris did time for another rape that he perpetrated the year following this case, in 1983, charges on the 1982 case were not filed until he was arrested in Biloxi, Mississippi, and returned to Norman in 2014. The judge, Lori Walkley, ruled, however, that the statute of limitations on the 1982 rape had run out, as identification of the real perpetrator had not occurred until too many years after the crime. The case was dismissed, and Harris was released.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A criminal offense punishable by a year or more in jail.
  • Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolving conflicts.
  • Misdemeanor – A minor offense punishable by a year or less in jail.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.