Statutes of limitations go back to Roman law and are rooted in the idea of fundamental fairness to people accused of crimes. It is formal recognition that a person accused of a crime may lose evidence that's important to their defense the longer it takes for their case to get to court.
In Alabama, there are different statute of limitations for different types of crimes.
For misdemeanors, the prosecution of the case must be commenced within 12 months.
Most, but not all, felonies have a statute of limitations the five years; however, there are a variety of felony charges that have no statute of limitations whatsoever.
One thing that people don't often understand, is that what stops the clock on a statute of limitations is what is known as the “commencement of the proceedings” by the state. In other words, if the state commences proceedings prior to the time that the statute of limitations has run out, the accused person usually cannot raise the statute of limitations as a defense. So, if Billy Bob is accused of felony theft in Alabama and he runs off to Brazil and hides for five years and comes back that doesn't mean that he's evaded the statute of limitations if the state is already obtained an arrest warrant or an indictment against him. However, if Billy Bob just hangs around his home and the state prosecutor accidentally drops Billy Bob's file behind the air conditioning unit in his office and then forgets about it until he discovers it five years later, Billy Bob is in the clear because the statute of limitations has run out.
Many people get confused about this issue. They mistakenly think that if a long period of time has passed since they were charged, they will be protected by the statute of limitations. But as you can see from Billy Bob's example once the state “commences the prosecution” they have set the hook and the statute of limitations itself is not a protection for a person accused. By way of analogy, they can try to run out a lot of lines they are still not off the hook- even if it takes a while for them to be reeled in.
There are also a number of criminal charges that have no statute of limitations in all. In other words, these crimes can be prosecuted no matter how long afterward the prosecution can commence.
These charges include capital murder, sex offenses against anyone under the age of 16, felony forgery and counterfeiting offenses. They also include drug trafficking and felonies and felonies involving either the attempted use of or the threat of violence against someone and felonies involving serious physical injury or death to anyone.
The law regarding this issue can sometimes be tricky and if you're charged with a crime or you're afraid you're going to be charged with a crime, you should speak with a competent criminal defense lawyer.
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