Most have heard of the term “statute of limitations.”  And probably when most people think of the term they jokingly associate it with the thought of how much time they must pass before being cleared of responsibility for their actions.

That’s the general concept of the statute of limitations: it’s a legal timer —a running clock if you will—that sets a period of time within which an action must be initiated.  Generally, the statute of limitations is associated most frequently with civil law, but the criminal law has a statute of limitations as well.  The general statute of limitations for criminal offenses is set forth in the Judiciary Code, specifically 42 Pa.C.S. § 5552.

The text of the statute of limitations itself should also be the starting point for determining the limitations period for a particular offense.  However, for a quick general overview and reference point, the following gives the gist of time frames for prosecuting certain offenses in Pennsylvania.

  • Two-Year General Rule: “[A] prosecution must be commenced within 2 years after it is committed.”
  • Five-Year Period: The following offenses, among others, must be commenced within 5 years after it is committed:
    • Aggravated Assault
    • Terroristic Threats
    • Burglary
    • Robbery
    • Theft
    • Drug Offenses punishable under 35 P.S. § 780-113(f) (like Possession With Intent to Deliver)
  • Twelve-Year Period: Major sexual offenses must be commenced within 12 years after it is committed (examples: rape, statutory sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and aggravated indecent assault).

There are exceptions to these time frames under the statute.  But with respect to all of the time frames, the clock starts ticking once the offense is “committed,” and the statute defines exactly what that means.  See 42 Pa.C.S. § 5552(d).

If you suspect you or a loved one is the subject of a criminal investigation, you should never take the approach of “sitting on your hands” and hoping the statute of limitations runs.  You should seek the advice of an attorney immediately if you anticipate criminal charges and be proactive in confronting them.  Hardly ever does the criminally accused benefit on the grounds that the statute of limitations has expired for prosecuting their particular offense.