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When a crime is committed, there is a window of time that a state has to charge the perpetrator. The laws that determine this time frame are called criminal statutes of limitations. Every state's statutes of limitations are different. Click below to access RAINN's State-by-State Law Database.
Each state has statutes of limitations that determine the amount of time the state has to charge someone with a crime. You can think of a statute of limitations like a timer: the clock typically starts when the crime occurs; after time runs out, a perpetrator cannot be charged for the crime.
Statutes of limitations vary by state, situation, and type of crime. Generally, each state’s law addresses a few key questions:
Statutes of limitations are written and decided on by state policymakers. That means that each state has its own set of statute of limitations laws—these laws can be different, even when the crimes are the same. For example, the statute of limitations for rape in Alaska is unlimited: prosecutors can always bring charges against someone suspected of rape, no matter how much time has passed. On the other hand, in Massachusetts rape has a 15 year statute of limitations.
When a crime is prosecuted by the state, the lawyer seeking to press charges against a perpetrator, known as the prosecutor, must determine which statute of limitations applies in that particular case. To do this, prosecutors consider some of the following questions:
Statutes of limitation were put in place in part to discourage convictions based on “unreliable witness testimony,” including memories of events that occurred years in the past.
In recent years, evidence that does not erode over time is often available, such as DNA, audio or video recordings, emails, texts, and other digital communication. These newer forms of evidence play an important role in investigating and prosecuting crimes of sexual violence. Society also has come to understand more about the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of sexual violence and the reasons why a victim may not immediately report the crime. As understanding of these crimes and their effect have evolved, so have states’ laws.