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What is the Statute of Limitations on Federal Crimes? An Overview

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 10:11 am


What is the Statute of Limitations on Federal Crimes? An Overview

Trying to understand the statute of limitations for federal crimes can be really confusing. Unlike state laws that set time limits for prosecuting different types of crimes, federal law works totally differently.

The best way to think about it is that there is generally no statute of limitations for federal crimes. So if you commit a federal crime like tax evasion, mail fraud, or robbery of a federally insured bank, you can be prosecuted at any time in the future.

I know that sounds kinda crazy and maybe unfair. But it’s the law. Let me explain a little more about how it works.

Why No Statute of Limitations for Most Federal Crimes?

First, we gotta understand that the purpose of a statute of limitations is to encourage law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes in a timely manner. It prevents old claims from being brought years later when evidence may be lost.

For most state crimes, there are good policy reasons for having a time limit. But the federal government believes certain crimes are so serious that you should never be able to just get away with them by waiting out the clock. These include:

  • Treason
  • Espionage
  • Terrorism
  • Murder
  • Genocide
  • Sexual abuse of children

There are also no time limits for crimes that undermine the proper functioning of the federal government itself, like bribery of public officials, tax evasion, and election fraud.

The government’s view is that putting a ticking timer on prosecuting these offenses could let dangerous criminals and corrupt public servants off the hook. That in turn threatens public safety and confidence in federal institutions.

Are There Any Exceptions?

There are a handful of narrow exceptions where federal crimes do have a statute of limitations:

  • Most non-capital federal offenses committed before 1987 have a 5 year statute of limitations. So if the crime happened before 1987 and wasn’t punishable by death, the feds only had 5 years to prosecute you.
  • Non-capital offenses between 1987-1996 have a general limit of 8 years.
  • After 1996, most non-capital crimes have a 10 year statute of limitations.

There are also some other specialized carve outs. For example, certain federal crimes related to financial institutions have a 10 year limit. Immigration offenses are capped at 5 years.

Note that the exceptions above are for “non-capital” crimes only. Capital offenses like murder, treason, and espionage still have unlimited statutes of limitations regardless of when they occurred.

What If the Crime Is Ongoing?

Another key thing to understand is that the clock doesn’t start ticking until the criminal act is complete. If the crime is continuing or part of an ongoing conspiracy, the statute of limitations only kicks in once the unlawful conduct ends.

For example, say you commit tax fraud by underreporting income for 5 straight years. The IRS generally has 10 years to prosecute after your last false return was filed, not when you submitted the first one.

Tolling Provisions

There are also “tolling provisions” that can pause or extend the statute of limitations in certain circumstances:

  • If the defendant leaves the United States after committing a federal offense, the statute of limitations is tolled until they return.
  • The statute may be tolled while formal charges against the defendant are pending.
  • In conspiracy cases, the statute is paused until the last overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy is committed.

So the clock can get paused for quite a while if the defendant becomes a fugitive, gets indicted, or continues participating in an ongoing conspiracy.

Waiving the Statute of Limitations Defense

Many federal crimes don’t have a statute of limitations at all. But for those that do, the time limit is still just a potential defense that the defendant can choose to waive.

By pleading guilty or declining to raise the statute of limitations as a defense, a defendant gives up their right to have the case thrown out because too much time has passed. So the case can still proceed regardless of the limit if the defense isn’t asserted.

When to Consult an Attorney

If you’re under investigation for a federal crime or have an old offense coming back to haunt you, don’t assume you’re in the clear just because many years have passed. The complex rules around statutes of limitation mean the case could potentially still move forward against you.

Consulting an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is essential to understand how much time the government still has to prosecute you. An attorney can also advise you on potential defenses based on the expiration of the statute of limitations in your specific case.

Don’t take any chances. Call a lawyer to protect your rights and avoid being convicted of a time-barred federal crime.

The Bottom Line

Because there is generally no statute of limitations for federal crimes, old offenses can come back to bite you decades later. But for less serious non-capital crimes prior to the mid-1990’s, there may still be time limits in play. Understanding the nuances is critical to knowing your exposure. When in doubt, talk to an attorney!


Criminal Resource Manual 627 – Statute of Limitations on Federal Crimes. Justice Department.

Tolling Provisions Applicable to Statute of Limitations in Federal Criminal Cases. Congressional Research Service.

Statute of Limitations in Federal Criminal Cases: An Overview. Congressional Research Service.

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