A statute of limitations places a cap in the amount of time in which criminal or civil litigation can proceed. This idea was conceived as way to preserve evidence. The more time passes before a case is tried, the less evidence will exist. The more time passes before a case is tried, the less likely it is for witnesses to come forward. A statute of limitations makes it more likely that cases will be tried soon after a crime is committed, but in some cases this cap will tie the prosecution’s hands, making it impossible to try someone for a serious crime.
A good example of this is rape. Dozens of states still have a statute of limitations for cases involving sexual assault, ranging from an absurd three years to a more reasonable three decades. California changed its own laws following the slew of accusations levied against former comedian Bill Cosby, most of which could not be tried. He is currently serving three to ten years in prison for the crime.
The crimes he allegedly committed were so serious, and it begs the question: are there any crimes for which the prosecution is not restricted by a statute of limitations?
The number is few. In order for this burden to be lifted, a crime has to meet a specific standard: society as a whole must feel the crime is unthinkable. Most of the time murder fits this mold. However, it should be noted that judges can, and do, dismiss murder charges if a long period of time has elapsed between the crime and the prosecution. Usually these cases were already cold.
Many states lift the statute of limitations when crimes are committed against or using minors. Kidnapping is an example of a crime that almost always carries no statute. Others include sex offenses (only against minors), violent crime, and arson. Surprisingly, forgery often falls into this category as well. The latter is a stark reminder that we have a lot of work to do as a society when it comes to categorizing crimes and punishments and limitations in a way that can be deemed proportional.
Some states levy or lift a statute of limitations based on categorization of felony. Some categories have one, and some don’t. This is dependent on the crime itself, and some states don’t abide by this rule.