Over the years, I have fielded a number of questions relating to time constraints that prosecutors have in bringing formal charges in a criminal case. As with most aspects of criminal procedure in Georgia, there are checks and balances that limit the power of the State to prosecute. Since there are voluminous exceptions to these rules, I will provide a nutshell version of the law in Georgia.
In general, prosecution for felonies must commence within four years after the commission of the crime, except that prosecution for felonies against victims who are at the time of the commission of the offense under the age of 18 years shall be commenced within seven years of the commission of the crime.
Also, prosecution for other crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment shall be commenced within seven years after the commission of the crime; provided, however, that prosecution for the crime of forcible rape must be commenced within 15 years after the commission of the crime.
Prosecution for misdemeanors shall be commenced within two years after the commission of the crime.
Now, there are some other notable exceptions to the four year felony rule. For instance, a prosecution for murder may be commenced at any time. You have seen examples of this when a “cold case” suddenly becomes a topic on the news. There have also been a number of murder cases in Georgia, and other states, from the 1960’s where the defendant has been brought to justice decades after the crime was committed.
Additionally, a prosecution for armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, and other serious sexual offenses may be commenced at any time when DNA evidence can be used to establish the identity of the accused.
There are also “tolling” scenarios when the statute of limitations will not run. They include, but are not limited to:
1. When the accused is not usually and publicly a resident within the state;
2. The person who committed the crime is unknown or the crime itself is unknown;
3. The accused is a government officer or employee and the crime charged is theft by conversion of public property; or
4. The accused is a guardian or trustee and the crime charged is theft by conversion of property of the ward or beneficiary.
One other important provision in the law protects our seasoned citizens. For victims who are 65 years old or older, the statute of limitations will not start running until the violation is reported to or discovered by a law enforcement agency, prosecuting attorney, or other governmental agency, whichever occurs earlier. Additionally, prosecution cannot begin more than 15 years after the crime has been committed unless the statute of limitations for that crime is greater than 15 years (murder, for example).
It would probably take seven to eight columns to give this subject a fair and thorough explanation. However, the above generally represents the basics of the law in Georgia that limits prosecution.
As you can see, the General Assembly has provided for general rules on felonies and misdemeanors, but has also carved out exceptions to protect our most vulnerable potential victims of crimes; the young and the old.