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Statutes of Limitations

by | Criminal Law


If you’ve ever had any interest in or involvement with the law, you’ve probably heard the term “statute of limitations.”  People often use this term to explain why a particular legal action wasn’t taken, or why it failed.  This article will explain what that means.

What is it?

A statute of limitations is a law that creates a deadline for how much time can pass between when a wrongful act takes place and when a legal claim for a remedy must be filed.  There are statutes of limitations for filing criminal charges as well as complaints for civil actions, like lawsuits.  Some wrongful acts, like assault or fraud, carry both civil and criminal consequences.  For example, a person who assaults another person faces both Class 1 misdemeanor charges AND a lawsuit from the victim for damages.  Make sure you talk to a lawyer about your specific concerns if you fear that you are vulnerable to legal action.


Criminal Statutes of Limitations

First things first: felony charges are not limited by statute.  Law enforcement or prosecutors can charge a felony regardless of how long ago it allegedly took place.  Virginia Code §19.2-8 sets forth most of the limitations on other kinds criminal complaints.  Most misdemeanors must be charged within a year of the offense date, but there are plenty of exceptions.


Most property crimes, such as fraud, business and securities offenses, dumping, and pollution, must be charged within three years of the offense.  However, petit larceny, which is theft of property valued at less than $500, can be charged any time within five years of the offense date.  Cruelty to agricultural animals must be prosecuted within a year, but cruelty to other animals may be prosecuted within five years.  Creating an image of another person without their consent may likewise be prosecuted within five years of the offense.  Because not all criminal acts are instantly apparent, some of these filing deadlines start when the act is first discovered, as opposed to when it is committed.  Prosecutions on identity theft crimes must commence within a year of the discovery of the offense, but no more than five years after the last offense.


Some actions are only criminal if the actor lacks appropriate credentials.  Practicing law without a license is chargeable within two years of the discovery that the purported lawyer is not licensed.  Placing children for adoption without a license is chargeable within a year of the filing of the adoption petition.  Engaging in other work that requires special certification or licensure, without the necessary qualifications, must be charged within five years of the offense date, and no more than one year from the discovery of the offense


 Multiple Causes of Action

As previously, mentioned, some wrongful acts carry both criminal and civil liability.   Fraud suits and suits for personal injury must be brought within two years.  Property suits and suits based on driving errors must be brought within five years.  Suits based on sexual abuse of an infant or an incapacitated person must be brought within five years.  These time limits do not apply to the criminal liability for these offenses.


Statutory Causes of Action

Some causes of action have been specifically created, and limited, by statute.  Claims for remedy under that the Business Opportunity Act must be demanded within a year of the contract date.  No offenses of the Virginia Computer Crimes Act may be prosecuted once more than five years passes from the offense date.  However, once the offense is discovered and the offenders’ identities are known, complainants must act within a year to prosecute criminally and two years to file civil action.


Almost all drug distribution offenses are felonies.  This means that criminal prosecution can take place at any time.  However, certain types of drug distribution also expose the offender to suit under the Drug Dealer Liability Act.  This Act allows parents of drug addicts to sue their minor child’s dealer.  The suit can be filed anytime before the child turns twenty. 


The Bottom Line

Time can be your enemy or your friend when it comes to your rights under the law.  Make sure to contact a lawyer who can offer the best protection and guidance.

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