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In common law, a statutory time limit after which a person cannot be prosecuted for a crime.
This is highly variable by jurisdiction and the kind of crime, but the basic principle is that if a suspect is not brought to trial within a reasonable amount of time, the law cannot keep pursuing them. Some jurisdictions "start the clock" when the crime is committed, others when a crime is discovered, and there may be circumstances that extend the allowable time. Of course the big exception is murder, having no statute of limitations in most jurisdictions.
The most common use of the statute of limitations in fiction is for a criminal to be within a very short time of reaching that deadline, and the police desperately trying to find them (or the necessary evidence) before the clock runs out.
Anime & Manga
- One story in the Detective Conan manga has this occur, with the criminal having to stay hidden extra time because the clock didn't "run" while he was out of the country. He's still arrested because he forgot that his plane was delayed landing until after midnight, giving the police a whole extra day.
- At the time the story was written, Japan had a 15 year statute of limitations for murder, this was changed to 25 years in 2005.
- In 2010, Japan abolished the statute of limitations for murder and other crimes that result in the deaths of persons, as well as extending the statute of limitations for other crimes.
- Superintendent Kiyonaga Matsumoto has a Serial Killer-related case that has already passed the statute and doubles as his That One Case, since one of the victims was Matsumoto's partner AND the culprit took out Matsumoto's eye in their one encounter.. The killer, however, commited one last murder that can still be pursued, but it's few days away from being prescripted... Said killer, however, turns out to be the Asshole Victim from the present case. Killed by the vengeful son of the last person he murdered.
- Tenchi Muyo!: Ryoko escapes punishment for her crimes on the planet Jurai because the Statute of Limitations ran out just after she was found and before she could be arrested. Didn't stop Ayeka from taking Ryoko in trying to find Yosho NOR did it stop Queen Misaki from slapping the bill from reconstruction on her.
- A chapter of Black Jack has a robber days away from running the clock out and the police officer chasing him crash near the medico's house. (They're kept in separate rooms, so don't realize who the other is.) By the time the robber is healed, the time limit has expired--but Blackjack's fee is exactly the amount of money he stole.
- Combat Mecha Xabungle has a three-day limit as a plot point. The main character continues the pursuit of the criminal after the three days are up, so by definition he is breaking the law.
- In the Isaac Asimov (very) short story "A Loint of Paw," a criminal called Stein travels to the future in a time machine after his crime, to take advantage of the statute of limitations. When he is caught, a legal battle ensues as to whether he should be imprisoned or not. The judge's resolution is the punchline to the story: "A niche in time saves Stein".
- The ending to the A.A. Fair Lam / Cool novel Beware the Curves turns on the statute of limitations.
Live Action Television
- An episode of the 1950s Superman TV show had a criminal who'd locked himself in an impenetrable bunker for the duration. Not so impenetrable, as Superman used a one-time Intangible Man power to get in without breaking it, and tampered with the internal clock to make it run fast.
- In an episode of NCIS, a war veteran turns himself in for murdering a comrade in arms several decades ago. Despite his half-senile state and the reluctance of the team to investigate, the fact that there is no limitation on murder forces them to treat it as an open case.
- Sometimes invoked on Cold Case as the statute of limitations has expired on some lesser offenses, allowing the suspects to be more honest about what happened involving the murder that's the main focus of the story.
- The detectives of Law and Order: Criminal Intent are on the trail of a racial-based beating that left the victim mentally handicapped and paralyzed well after the statute of limitations has run out; the district attorney plans to file charges for murder as soon as the victim dies, since there's no statute of limitations for murder.
- Formerly, that could have potentially run afoul of another deadline: The "Year and a Day rule" which prevents assault charges from escalating to murder unless the victim succumbs to their wounds within that time frame.
- An episode of CSI revisits a previous case when the rapist who left his victim in a coma goads her husband into taking her off life support. This made the husband responsible for her murder. Had she died of her wounds from the original assault he would have been charged with her murder.
- In one Mission Impossible episode, the IMF convince a criminal that he has been in cryogenic suspension for several years and that the statute of limitations on his crimes has expired. Involves a double Faked Rip Van Winkle.
- The Twilight Zone story where criminals rob a bank, then go into suspended animation cells that one of the criminals has invented! to escape the statute of limitations. It works, but when they get out the money they stole is worthless.
- One episode of Law and Order SVU, "Limitations" dealt with this. Cragen was pressured to reopen three rape investigations after they were proven to be linked by DNA evidence, and they only had a matter of days for each one.
- There's an episode of Murder, She Wrote where a bank robber returns to town after the statute expires. (Also, it was assumed he had been killed while fleeing, so the police never issued a fugitive warrant.)
- One episode of Recess parodied this. TJ and Vince became fans of a Hardy Boys Captain Ersatz. They ended up solving a mystery where the villain removed the head of a statue and tried to extort the city into paying him to return it. His plan was to wait until the statute of limitations expired and sell it back to the city.
- One episode of The Rockford Files involved a robbery that was a few days away from its statute of limitations running out. Organized crime knew who the thief was, and naturally tried to get their hands on half a million dollars that would very soon be clean.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Who Mourns for Morn?" the statue of limitations is about to expire on a big robbery that (it turns out) Morn had been involved with. The others in the robbery come to collect their portions of the loot.
- In Ace Attorney, the statute of limitations running out on DL-6 is what kicks off the events surrounding case 1-4.
- Similarly, worries that SL-9 will never be solved before the statute runs out prompts Marshall to approach Goodman, the head detective, for help. Goodman initially refuses. When the time comes to transfer the evidence, though, he asks to reopen the case and give the evidence to Marshall, but Gant murders him and orders Lana to take the fall.
- The statute of limitations is also an important point in Gyakuten Kenji 2, in the IS-7 incident, the precursor to DL-6. It happened a year before DL-6, yet Edgeworth manages to solve the case even two years after it.
- The major exception to this rule is used for a Crosses the Line Twice joke in Saints Row 2:
Judge: Mr. Gat, you've been convicted of over 300 murders. Do you really expect this appeal to work?
Johnny: I figure with the statute of limitations, it really should be closer to 250.
Judge: There's no statute of limitations for murder!
Johnny: Why the fuck not?
- Truth in Television: A good portion of Athens hated Socrates because his tutelage lead to two hated leaders, Alkibades and Critas. However, after Critas was overthrown, the Spartans forced the Athenians to enact an amnesty, which kept Socrates from being tried for those crimes. He was still put on trial for different reasons, but it was pretty obvious that they were just trying to Rules Lawyer their way around the amnesty.
- Bulgaria has a 30 year statute of limitations on murder- so no-one can now be prosecuted in that country for the London murder of Georgi Markov (who was killed by ricin injected via a modified umbrella) in 1978.