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Federal Statute of Limitations

What is the Statute of Limitations for Federal Crimes?

The statute of limitations is the time limit for filing charges against the defendant. The general federal statute of limitations for felonies stand for the proposition that the government can no longer file criminal charges for an offense once 5 years has passed. The federal statute of limitations is 18 USC 3282. This statue states:

Except as otherwise expressly provided by law, no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense, not capital, unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within five years next after such offense shall have been committed.  .

Purpose of the Statute of Limitations

The main purpose of the statute of limitations is to keep defendants from having to defend themselves from charges that occurred so far into the past that it makes it impossible to properly defend oneself. In many of these cases, evidence may no longer be available, making it harder to defend oneself and prove one's innocence. It would violate the defendant's right to receive due process under the law and the right to receive a fair trial if a prosecution was to take place under those conditions

The argument that the statute of limitations has run is a defense against a criminal charge, yet if it is not presented before a trial begins, the defendant likely has waived their right to use this as a defense. In order to successfully use the statute of limitations defense, it is necessary to show that the criminal complaint or indictment was filed after the 5 year period of the statute of limitations had run.*

Exceptions to the Statute

The statute of limitation does have exceptions. Federal law says that the general 5-year statute of limitations applies in every case unless there is a specific code section that extends the statute of limitations for that particular offense. For capital crimes, such as the capital murder, there is no statute of limitations (18 USC 3281).  . Terrorism is also not subject to any statute of limitations where the offense caused death or serious bodily injury or harm (18 USC 3286). Sexual offenses against children also have no statute of limitations (18 USC 3283) .

Many white collar crimes have their own statute of limitations. For example, an offense against the Internal Revenue Service is governed by 26 USC 6531 . Federal tax law states that charges for tax crimes such as tax evasion, 26 USC 7201 , failure to file a tax return, 26 USC 7203, must be filed within 6 years from the date of the offense.

Major fraud against the United States has certain conditions for the statute of limitations. The charge of major fraud against the US is established by 18 USC 1031 and must involve at a minimum 1,000,000. A person guilty of an offense where he knowingly defrauds the federal government in any grant, contract, loan, federal assistance, etc. is subject to 10 years in federal prison. The statute of limitations for major fraud against the United States is 7 years from the date that the crime was committed.

There are instances where the statute of limitations will be extended by the court after petition by the United States Attorney. These are some examples:

  • Original charges were dismissed. 18 USC 3288 . Federal prosecutors can reinstate charges for an additional 6 months after the statute of limitations has run.
  • The offense took place in a foreign country, or evidence is located in foreign territory. 18 USC 3292 .

For Immigration offenses, federal law extends the statute of limitations from 5 years to 10 for the following offenses:

  • Using false or fraudulent citizenship papers. 18 USC 1423 .
  • Impersonating another as an applicant, declarant, petitioner, or witness in citizenship or naturalization proceedings. 18 USC 1424 .
  • Obtaining citizenship or naturalization illegally. 18 USC 1425 .
  • Manufacture, sale, distribution, or reproduction of false, forged, fraudulent, or counterfeit citizenship or naturalization papers. 18 USC 1426 .
  • Sale of otherwise legal naturalization or citizenship papers. 18 USC 1427 .
  • Failing to surrender canceled naturalization certificate. 18 USC 1428 .
  • Issuing a passport without authority. 18 USC 1541 .
  • Making a false statement in an application for a passport. 18 USC 1542 .
  • Falsifying, forging, counterfeiting, mutilating, or altering a passport. 18 USC 1543 .
  • Using a passport belonging to another person. 18 USC 1544 .

The statute of limitations for banks and other financial institutions is 10 years for the following offenses:

  • Bank fraud (scheme or artifice to defraud a financial institution). 18 USC 1344.
  • Mail fraud (using the mails for a scheme or artifice to defraud). 18 USC 1341 .
  • Wire fraud (using wire, radio, or television in a scheme or artifice to defraud). 18 USC 1343 .
  • Violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 USC 1962 , that is predicated on bank fraud under 18 USC 1344 .
  • Receipt of commissions or gifts for procuring loans. 18 USC 215 .
  • Theft, embezzlement, or misapplication by bank officer or employee. 18 USC 656 .
  • Embezzling funds from a federal financial institution. 18 USC 657 .
  • Falsifying bank records (reports, entries or transactions). 18 USC 1005 .
  • Falsifying records of a federal financial institution (reports, entries or transactions) 18 USC 1006 .
  • Falsifying, forging, or counterfeiting a statement to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). 18 USC 1007 .
  • Making a false statement or report, or overvaluing assets for a federal loan 18 USC 1014 .
  • Making a false statement or report, or overvaluing assets as it relates to insurance and a financial institution. 18 USC 1033 .
  • Major fraud against the United States. 18 USC 1031

Conspiracy crimes have a very different statute of limitations in comparison with other crimes. For instance, in conspiracies prosecuted under 18 USC 371 involving a conspiracy to commit a federal offense or to defraud the United States, the statute begins to run on the date that the last act that was a part of the conspiracy was taken. The same applies to conspiracies to defraud the federal government by making fabricated claims under 18 USC 286 , and drug trafficking 21 USC 846 .


“The death penalty is a lie, a misguided mistake born of anger and frustration. Capital punishment has become a perverse monument to inequality, to how some lives matter and others do not. It is a violent example of how we protect and value the rich and abandon and devalue the poor. The death penalty is a grim, disturbing shadow formed by the legacy of racial apartheid and bias against the poor that condemns the disfavored among us, but corrupts us all. It’s the perverse symbol elected officials use to strengthen their ‘tough on crime’ reputations and distract us from confronting the causes of violence. It is finally the enemy of grace, redemption and all of us who recognize that each person is more than their worse act.”
- Bryan Stevenson