Swamp Water Jurisprudence: Statute of limitations … just or unjust?


by Judge Dennis Challeen

For centuries, lawmakers have debated the need for the statute of limitations, which bars prosecutors from charging a person with a criminal act if a defined number of years have passed. The reasons are that evidence, physical or eyewitness, deteriorates with time. Critical witnesses die, or become forgetful, making it difficult to prove the crime or for defendants to adequately defend themselves. Once the time elapses, the accused, even if guilty, goes free.

Anyone planning to commit a crime had better understand it’s not simple to fall under the protection of the statute. Fleeing the state or going to a foreign country and hiding out doesn’t work; the statute only begins to mark time while an offender remains visible and “catchable.” If a person is hiding out of the jurisdiction of the state where the crime was committed, the statute is suspended until the person returns — then the clock begins to run again.

Not all crimes fall within the statute. Murder is an example; the crime will remain as long as the accused lives. Crimes against children generally have no statute of limitations, or do not begin to toll until the child reaches adulthood. Generally in Minnesota, misdemeanors and felonies have a three-year statute of limitation. Civil cases for personal injury are two years, medical malpractice four years, and credit card debt six years. If you have a claim it’s wise not to sit on your rights; consult a lawyer so you know when the statute begins to toll against your claim for damages.

If a person commits a crime and flees to a foreign country and is arrested, his or her return (called extradition) depends upon what treaties exist between the U.S. and that foreign country.

Many countries, including the U.S., do not extradite people who are only accused or guilty of political crimes. The U.S. is one of very few countries left on earth that still impose the death penalty. Countries such as Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, et al, who don’t have the death penalty, will not return a fugitive to any American state that has the death penalty unless that state agrees not to charge or impose capital punishment or any kind of torture. Minnesota and Wisconsin do not have these problems.

Probably the most publicized case of avoiding the statute of limitations is the 1977 case where Roman Polanski (age 43 at the time) a Hollywood film director, was charged in California with five sexual assaults against a 13-year-old girl. Polanski pleaded guilty to a reduced negotiated plea, but before being sentenced, he fled to France where he was a citizen. France has a treaty with the U.S. that gives it the right not to extradite its own citizens. France exercised this right and Polanski was safe from arrest as long as he remained in France. However, he visited Switzerland to receive an award and was arrested upon the old U.S. warrant. In 2010 a Swiss court rejected the U.S. request for extradition, and he was released back to France. In the meantime the alleged victim, now a middle-aged adult, accepted a cash settlement from Polanski and said she doesn’t want the case pursued any longer. Polanski is now 84 years old. He is a free man within his country yet he is imprisoned by the boundaries of France.

This gets us to Bill Cosby, the comedian, who has been accused by 60 women of sexual assault. Only one resulted in a trial; all the other charges were older and barred by Pennsylvania’s 12-year statute of limitation. In June 2017 Cosby was tried and the jury came back hopelessly deadlocked. The prosecution has said it will try him again this coming spring.

At first glance, seeing a person commit a crime and then running from prosecution seems to be escaping from justice. However, the high cost of incarceration and the poor recidivism rates coming out of our jails and prisons have created a new reality. In property crimes, non-violent offenses, judges often sign warrants for the arrest of a fugitive at the request of prosecutors that reads: “If arrested we will not extradite.” Which simply means if you arrest this man on a non-violent crime in your jurisdiction, he’s yours to put up with, but if he ever returns to our jurisdiction he will be prosecuted and incarcerated. There are types of criminals nobody wants.

Of course this is a two-way street; when we do this, other jurisdictions do the same to us! 


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