A statute of limitations sets the period of time someone has to take some kind of legal action. Civil statutes of limitations, for example, set deadlines for suing. When a plaintiff misses the cutoff, the defendant can use the statute of limitations as a defense against the suit. If the defendant establishes that the statute of limitations applies and has indeed “run,” the court will normally dismiss the case.
In the criminal justice system, statutes of limitations set the amount of time the government has to prosecute people. If the government doesn’t file charges within the designated time period, the defendant can hold up the statute of limitations as a complete defense.
Civil Statutes of Limitations
Statutes of limitations set time limits on how long you have to file a civil case, such as a medical malpractice lawsuit. These time limits usually depend on the type of legal claim involved, and they differ from state to state. For instance, in some states you might have three years to file a personal injury suit after you were hurt in car accident, but in other states you might have only two years.
Setting Time Limits on Civil Claims
For statute-of-limitations purposes, the clock normally starts to tick when the claim arises. Courts sometimes refer to this starting point as the “accrual” of the “cause of action”; it’s the moment at which the plaintiff has a basis to sue. (Certain events and circumstances can delay or “toll” statutes of limitations, essentially lengthening the time period for bringing a claim.)
Assume one person wants to sue another for assault and battery. Assume also that the statute of limitations for assault and battery is two years. In a typical case, the plaintiff would have two years from the date of being hit by the defendant to file a lawsuit.
Statutes of limitations can vary from state to state, and from state court to federal court. They also differ depending on the kind of action involved.
Civil Statutes of Limitations in Alabama
Below you’ll find statutes of limitations for several claims in Alabama. You can see the statutes to learn more. (Be aware that statutes change, and that court rulings determine the way statutes are interpreted; court rulings can even make statutes or parts of them unenforceable.)
Keep in mind that the following is a partial list with broad overviews; you should look at the actual law for nuances and exceptions. For example, whether because the statute says so or a court has decided as much, a limitations period can start to run from the point that the plaintiff knew or should have known of an injury rather than the date of the injury itself. A statute might even provide, for instance, that you have two years to bring an action from the date you knew or should have known that you suffered some kind of harm, but in no event do you have more than six years from the date of the event in question. Examining the law would provide you with that level of detail.
Also, even if one of the causes of action below seems to apply, you might have grounds for a different or an additional claim with its own statute of limitations. Not only that, but a more specific statute of limitations than what’s below could control your case—perhaps a statute of limitations for mortgage foreclosure rather than one for contracts.
Make sure to consult a lawyer for a better understanding of all time limits that apply to your situation and any possibilities for overcoming them. Rules might differ when the action is against the government. Or you might have to file a particular kind of claim before being able to sue. In short, the law in this area is complicated.
Criminal Statutes of Limitations
Criminal statutes of limitations are designed to protect would-be defendants. Among the rationales are that it’s harder to defend oneself when a lot of time has passed and that it’s not fair to punish someone for behavior that happened a long time ago.
Time Limits for Criminal Prosecution
Limitation periods are usually longer for felonies than for misdemeanors. In many states, some crimes—most notably, murder—don’t have statutes of limitations. In other words, the government can charge someone with the offense no matter how long ago it allegedly happened.
The limitations period typically starts to “run” the moment the alleged crime is complete. So, if the period for criminal assault is three years, the prosecution would have three years from the date the defendant attacked the victim.
Determining the starting point for the limitations period can be trickier for crimes that span days, weeks, or longer. But the same general rule tends to apply—that is, that the clock starts ticking once the crime has actually ended. Courts have held, for example, that a conspiracy ends for statute-of-limitations purposes at the point that the last “overt act” was committed.
The passing of a statute of limitations generally means that the potential defendant is in the clear. But some events “toll”—or pause—statutes of limitations, giving the prosecution more time. For example, if the statute of limitations for a crime is five years and the suspect goes into hiding for a year—during which the statute is tolled—the prosecution may well have six years from the date of the crime to prosecute.
Criminal Statutes of Limitations in Alabama
Below you’ll find statutes of limitations for several crimes in Alabama. You can see the statutes to learn more. (Be aware that statutes change, and that court rulings determine the way statutes are interpreted; court rulings can even make statutes or parts of them unenforceable.)
Keep in mind that the following is a partial list with broad overviews. You should look at the actual law for nuances and exceptions, like the limitations period being longer when the victim is a minor or the starting point for the statute of limitations being the moment when the police discovered or should have discovered the crime. And remember that a knowledgeable lawyer can explain the precise rules, along with the way they apply to you.
In Alabama, the general statute of limitations for misdemeanors is 12 months, while the generic limitations period for felonies is five years. However, the following types of crimes do not have a statute of limitation and can be prosecuted at any time:
- Any capital offense.
- Any felony involving the use, attempted use, or threat of violence to a person.
- Any felony involving serious physical injury or death of a person.
- Any sex offense listed in the sex offender registration act involving a victim younger than 16 years of age, regardless of whether it involves force or serious physical injury or death.
- Any felony involving arson of any type.
- Any felony involving forgery of any type.
- Any felony involving counterfeiting.
- Any felony involving drug trafficking.
(Ala. Code §§ 15-3-1, 15-3-2, and 15-3-5 (2020).)