As time goes by: Can you be arrested for a crime committed years ago?

As the song says, moonlight and love songs are never out of date, but criminal charges may be. Before we start talking about statutes of limitations for the prosecution of certain crimes, though, we need to explain a few things.

First, a definition: According to Black's Law Dictionary, a statute of limitation is a law (state or federal) that establishes a time limit for prosecuting a crime. The limit is based on the date when the offense occurred, not on the date the offense was discovered.

Statutes of limitations are not meant to be free passes to commit a crime and find a way to avoid prosecution for a certain number of years. They are designed, again according to Black's, to protect us from having to defend ourselves against charges when the passage of time and other natural forces have obscured the facts. They also exist to keep law enforcement from trying to punish someone for something that happened long, long ago.

It's easy to come up with glib "for instances" -- Junior stole $20 from Mom's purse on his 21st birthday, and 40 years later she decides to complain to the police about it -- but real-life examples are a little more complicated. Imagine, though, that you are charged with stealing (swindling) from your employer. That theft occurred last week, and you had every intention of paying the company back. However, the police strongly suspect that you stole a car in the days following 9/11, and they add that to the charges.

You were in trouble, but now you are in serious trouble. You only took $3,000 from your employer, but the car was worth $50,000. The swindling would mean a maximum sentence of five years. Stealing a car turns those five years into 10 or more.

The statute of limitations, however, has run for the car theft. The state lost its right to charge you with that crime in 2006. And thank heavens, because you honestly don't remember what happened back then, and neither do any of the witnesses.

In our next post, we will discuss the statutes of limitations for different types of crimes.

Source: Minnesota Statutes Annotated § 628.26 via WestlawNext

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