Limitations on criminal prosecution

Published 5:30 pm Monday, January 7, 2019

William E. Gladstone once said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The above quote by the British legal philosopher in the 1800’s was meant to suggest that when an aggrieved person must wait for a long period of time for justice, then there is no justice.  However, there is another angle to this quote that applies to everyone in our country. When a person must wait indefinitely for criminal charges to be brought against him or her, justice is denied as well.      

There is still a common misconception that a prosecutor can bring criminal charges against a member of the community at any time.  The truth is that only one alleged crime has no time limitation on when it can be brought regardless of the circumstances.  That is murder.

For all other crimes, the citizenry is protected by what is called the statute of limitations (SOL). 

The SOL is a set of laws that forbid prosecutors from charging someone with a crime that was committed more than a specified number of years ago.

The main reasons why states have criminal SOL’s is to prevent delays in the filing of charges, to ensure that convictions are based on evidence that has not deteriorated with time, and to alleviate a lifetime of concern for a suspect that he or she might be arrested.

After the period of the statute has run, the crime cannot be prosecuted, and any charges filed after that point are subject to dismissal.

As in other states, Georgia’s criminal statute of limitations laws allow longer periods of time for rape, crimes against children and other offenses where alleged victims may not report the crime until years later.

Georgia’s criminal statute of limitations also specifically addresses the use of DNA to identity suspects (while clearing the falsely accused). Prosecution for armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery may be commenced at any time when DNA evidence is used to establish the identity of the accused.

The SOL generally begins to run at the time the alleged crime is committed.

However, the time can be “tolled” or stopped for a number of reasons. Common examples include situations where the crime has not been discovered yet or when the alleged victim is a young child. 

Additionally, the SOL can be tolled when a suspect flees the state where the crime was committed or is otherwise living in hiding.

In these cases, most states will toll the SOL period, which will only resume once the suspect reenters the state, is extradited (brought from another state in handcuffs) or is no longer in hiding.

In Georgia, the SOL on misdemeanors is two years. For felonies, it is four years. But, not all crimes are governed by the same statutes of limitations.    

Below are some of the offenses that have statute of limitations longer than four years:

4Murder – none.

4Forcible rape – 15 years.

4Crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment – 7 years.

4Crimes against victims under 14 – 18 years.

4For victims under 16 years of age of offenses such as rape, sodomy, incest and child molestation (occurring after 7/1/92), the statute will run upon the victim turning 16 or when the violation is reported, whichever occurs earlier.

4If DNA evidence establishes identity of accused in armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery – none.

While prosecutors are probably the most powerful men and women in the criminal justice system, their power does have limits.