Time Travel, Suspended Animation, and the Statute of Limitations

Several readers have asked about the interaction between things like time travel and suspended animation with the statute of limitations.  For example, if a character commits a crime, is frozen for the duration of the statute of limitations, then thawed out, are they still culpable?  Or what about a character that commits a crime with a 10 year statute of limitations in 2000 then travels forward in time to 2010?  At first it might seem like these are solid (if somewhat unfair) ways to cheat justice, but let’s take a closer look.

I. How Statutes of Limitations Work

Statutes of limitations are, as the name suggests, statutes—as opposed to common law rules—that limit a party’s right to bring an action against another party.  Statutes of limitations are common in many areas of the law, though for this article we’ll specifically be considering criminal statutes of limitation.  (They work similarly in other areas).  Generally speaking, most jurisdictions specify different periods of limitation for different crimes, and some crimes (e.g. murder and treason) typically do not have a statute of limitations.

A. Basic Principles and Rationales

There are many reasons for having statutes of limitations.  The Supreme Court summarized a few of the rationales in Toussie v. United States, 397 U.S. 112 (1970):

The purpose of a statute of limitations is to limit exposure to criminal prosecution to a certain fixed period of time following the occurrence of those acts the legislature had decided to punish by criminal sanctions. Such a limitation is designed to protect individuals from having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts may have become obscured by the passage of time and to minimize the danger of official punishment because of acts in the far-distant past. Such a time limit may also have the salutary effect of encouraging law enforcement officials promptly to investigate suspected criminal activity.

Notably, statutes of limitations are liberally construed in favor of criminal defendants, so if the law is ambiguous or there is a close call, a court will generally favor the defendant.  See, e.g., United States v. Habig, 390 U.S. 222, 227 (1968).

With those basic principles established, let’s look at some rules and exceptions.

B. Exceptions

The statute of limitations may be “tolled” (i.e. suspended) for various reasons.  Most of these reasons are spelled out in the statutes, but the courts have recognized some implicit exceptions arising from necessity.  One common explicit statutory exception is the absence of the defendant.  For example, the federal law provides that “No statute of limitations shall extend to any person fleeing from justice.”  18 USC 3290.  The federal courts are divided on whether this only applies to defendants who intend to avoid prosecution, but the majority view is that it does.  See United States v. Florez, 447 F.3d 145 (2d Cir. 2006).  Note that the intent to flee need only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, since it is not an element of the crime.  Id.

II. Applications to Suspended Animation and Time Travel

The “fleeing from justice” exception seems to squarely apply to time travel, particularly if the defendant is trying to use time travel to avoid prosecution.  During the period of the statute of limitations the defendant is unavailable; indeed, the defendant isn’t even present in the universe!

Placing oneself in suspended animation to wait out the statute of limitations is a closer case, however.  Theoretically the defendant may still be found, removed from suspended animation, and tried.  Obviously this only applies if the defendant is physically located within the jurisdiction of the court; a defendant who flees the country and then enters suspended animation would still have fled from justice.

Assuming the defendant is within the court’s jurisdiction, the answer probably depends on whether the defendant in fact fled from justice.  So, for example, if the hibernation chamber or stasis field or what-have-you is in the defendant’s house, that’s probably not fleeing from justice, intentional or otherwise.  But if it’s in a remote or hidden location, then that probably counts.  In that regard it’s no different from if the defendant simply holed up somewhere and laid low for a few years.

Referring back to our general principles we can see that this result squares with them pretty well.  While it’s true that memories will have faded and evidence may be lost or destroyed while the defendant hurtles through time or sits in cryosleep, some of the other rationales cut the other way.  For example, there is no concern about encouraging prompt action by the police and prosecutors; presumably they would have tried the defendant if they could have found him or her.  And the concern for “danger of official punishment because of acts in the far-distant past” is inapplicable because, from the defendant’s point of view, the acts occurred very recently.  Even the faded memories and lost evidence are not too strongly in favor of the defendant, since in the case of intentional flight from justice it is the defendant’s own bad acts that led to those circumstances.

III. Conclusion

Ultimately, any technological or superpowered attempts to avoid prosecution are still just variations on the age-old method of skipping town and lying low, and  the statutes of limitations are written generally enough to encompass any absence or flight of the defendant, no matter how it’s accomplished.  The law doesn’t care for cheaters, and this is no exception.

21 responses to “Time Travel, Suspended Animation, and the Statute of Limitations

  1. If they escaped by time travel, can they be extradited back to the time when they committed the crime? Or can they be brought back without any legal proceedings at the other time?

    • What if time travel is only in one direction? Say for example you get in a rocket ship and hurtle through space at incredibly high speeds so the time that passed on Earth is significantly greater than the time that passed for you aboard the ship. There may be no sending you back.

  2. Isaac Asimov said it best in a short story about a criminal named Stein who used a time machine to beat the statute of limitations:
    “A niche in time saves Stein”.

  3. I recall an episode of the George Reeves “The Adventures of Superman” in which a bad guy holed up in an “impermeable” bunker for seven years to beat the statute of limitations. Supes used a non-canonical power– the ability to rearrange his molecular structure– to phase into the wall and fiddle with the clock inside the bunker so that the criminal would emerge early– and be arrested in tome to beat the running of the statute.

  4. Hmm, if fleeing from justice constitutes removing a statue of limitations, does this mean it generally applies to crimes where no suspect is known in time? Seems like it’d be easy to label anybody who’s a suspect but not available as “fleeing justice” unless they can somehow demonstrate no intent to avoid prosecution. So I wonder if the time traveller/stasis user who left before he was served a warrant or similar (police request to “stay in town” count?) could argue he didn’t realize he was “fleeing”, though I assume that could only work if the crime was sufficiently obscure you could claim he didn’t realize he had broken the law by then.

    Of course, if I had time travel and really wanted to create legal headaches, I’d go for a “future me had done it without my knowledge” argument (there’s a nice topic to ponder for a post actually, how to deal with the future version of someone commiting a crime).

    • Isn’t this equivalent to the problem posed in The Minority Report? What if you have more than one possible future?

    • I am not a lawyer, but my understand is that in most jurisdictions the prosecution would have to show (though only by a preponderance of the evidence) that the person was fleeing prosecution. It would be up to the prosecution to make this case, it would not be up to the defendant to “demonstrate no intent to avoid prosecution.” Of course, being able to “demonstrate no intent to avoid prosecution” would certainly settle the issue, but it would not be required.

      Of course, on the other side of it you can be fleeing justice long before any police involvement. If you consciously know that you are likely to be a suspect, even if you are innocent of the actual crime, then there is no need for authorities to communicate the fact that you are a person of interest for your departure to be “fleeding from justice” if done with intent to avoid those authorities.

      As for the “future me had done it without my knowledge” defense, that is an interesting topic. My suspicion is it would hinge on how timetravel worked in that continuity. If it was one of the “time travel creates a new reality” type, then this might be valid and the “future you” might be more akin to a clone. (For instance the two Spocks in the last Star Trek movie). But other types of time travel might yield very different results.

  5. What about medical coma? Would that provide precedent for the suspended animation case?

  6. This may or may nor be a question for a different post, but here it goes.

    There was a character in a story I read who could manipulate his time. Speed it up so that to him, everyone else moved slow as molasses (kinda like Hero from Heroes), but would have a backlash from his powers which would equally slow him down afterwards. Name was Ebon Flow.

    My question is if a person had powers similar to this (“freeze” personal time, hide in a cocoon, etc.), could he/she use the slowdown effect while in prison to “escape” doing time? You would physically be there, just frozen like an immovable statue.

    • To put it a slightly different way: Stone Boy. He can turn himself into a statue at will. You’re still there, you’re still physically confined, so the time should count. OTOH, you cannot obey the reasonable orders of the correctional officers, which sets you up for bad time add-ons.

  7. Does double jeopardy apply to the state or the person? That is, if I commit a crime and at some point am convicted and served time, but later go back in time to a period following the original crime, but before the original trial, can I be tried again, or would double jeopardy apply?

    I guess, does it protect the person from being tried multiple times (in which case I would think it would apply) or is it that the government can’t prosecute multiple times (in which case it would not, because they have not done so, yet, in that time line).

    • Double jeopardy, as I understand it, applies to the specific elements of a criminal case: who the victim was, where it took place, when it took place, who the accused is, everything spelled out in the indictment. So, for instance, the Ashley Judd movie saying that the protagonist couldn’t be tried for killing her husband for real several years after she was wrongly convicted for killing him before was wrong, because the two (alleged) killings took place at different times and locations and thus constituted separate crimes. (By analogy, if a man was sent to jail for beating his wife once, that naturally wouldn’t exempt him from prosecution for future beatings.)

      So if you’ve already been tried, convicted, and served your time, I figure double jeopardy would apply. If you’re in an immutable timeline (or go back to after the crime and can’t prevent it, as you suggested) and your older self simply happens to coexist alongside your younger self, then it wouldn’t be right to try your older self alongside your younger self, because your older self has already paid your debt. It would still be your younger self who was put on trial.

      I was also going to bring up traveling into the past. It seems the safest way to avoid prosecution would be to travel back to more than a lifetime before the crime was committed. That way, you’d never be charged for the crime as long as you lived. Or, presuming a mutable timeline or a Many-Worlds formulation, you could go back and prevent yourself from committing the crime at all.

      • But since, at least in real life, you can only kill someone once; if the justice system says you killed a person, no one can kill that person again, they are already dead; unless of course they reverse the decision of judging you killed that person. How does the real justice system deals with a murder of someone who the system considered to already be dead, having been murdered by someone that is serving time (or has served) ? Is that a murder of John Doe?

    • You committed a crime on 2/22/11. You were arrested on 3/10/11 (subsequently released on bail). You were tried and convicted on 12/19/11. After serving your time you travel back to 5/11/11. They can’t try you again because of double-jeopardy again, right?

      Technically, you are right. You’d have been tried twice for the same crime. It would actually be double jeopardy even if you’d been acquitted the first time.

      You’re probably getting tried again. Remember, as far as the rest of the world goes, you haven’t been tried yet. It hasn’t happened. And while the prosecutor has to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he doesn’t have to prove that you haven’t been tried before beyond a reasonable doubt. That burden of proof is going to be on you.

      In order to get out of this you’re going to have to convince them of several things: That time travel is possible. That you (specifically) time traveled. That you did actually have your trial, were convicted, and served your sentence. And the biggest question of all. “if you were able to travel back in time, why didn’t you go back and tell yourself to not commit the crime in the first place?”.

      In short, even if you prove time travel the issue is going to be what matters more: the actual record of it (in which case it will have only happened once) or your experience of it (in which case it happened twice). And since they are going to want some record of a trial, I could easily see the ruling being “We haven’t tried you yet, so we’re going to. If you chose to come back in time and experience this twice, that’s on you”.

  8. Hm. Does this mean that Moriarty, a brilliant man who can hide evidence and lie to the police so well that nobody can solve the crime, would have the Statue of Limitations lifted from his brilliant bank heist if new evidence, using new technology, were discovered? After all, he lied and otherwise acted to prevent the possibility that he would be prosecuted.

    I’m not really clear on how any suspect who doesn’t turn himself in could ever have the statute of limitations apply to him if “fleeing from justice” is sufficient to have it waived.

    • Another common exception to the statute of limitations is concealment, although this typically requires “a positive act done by the accused calculated to prevent the discovery that the offense has been committed. Mere silence, inaction, or nondisclosure does not constitute concealment.” State v. Wilkins, 267 Kan. 355, 363 (1999). The kind of thing you’re describing would probably count, but failing to turn oneself in would not as that’s a kind of silence, inaction, or nondisclosure.

      Remember, in most jurisdictions “fleeing from justice” requires the intent to avoid prosecution. Other jurisdictions require that the defendant actually be absent from the jurisdiction or at least his usual abode.

      • Hmm, if positive action is required, I guess that means accidental time travellers (like that guy in Time Traveller’s Wife for a non-supers example) or somebody who fell into a suspended animation module might be exempt from the “fleeing from justice” exemption. Heroes who push villains into their own deep freeze/time machine to defeat them, beware! You might help him get off for the crime :).

    • New technology is used to solve crimes all the time. Recently a man was charged with murder civil rights activists decades ago because new technology linked him to it. Of course murder, if memory serves, doesn’t have a statute of limitations in the U.S.
      As for Moriarty, based on the later Holmes stories he actually made a large number of mistakes and was only saved from prosecution by Doyle’s need to make Holmes better than the police.

  9. “Theoretically the defendant may still be found, removed from suspended animation, and tried. ”

    In the case of being suspended in your own house, would it still count if they were unable to “wake” you?

  10. The article only considers traveling forward in time. What sort of implications are there for a criminal who travels back in time? Does the statute of limitations apply in reverse? Does the defendant get off by virtue of the fact that the crime hasn’t happened yet?

    A lot of that probably depends on the type of time travel rules. If the future can be changed, then the crime can still be prevented. So, let’s assume Terminator as our scenario. A terminator is sent back in time to do something completely legal in our time frame. Purchase raw materials and store them in a vault to be used later in construction of more Terminators, something like that. A human from the future also comes back and identifies the terminator. Can the terminator be tried for SkyNet’s acts of genocide? You have a complaining witness, plenty of good evidence that the robocalypse will happen, and circumstantial evidence that it can’t be prevented (otherwise the Connors would have prevented skynet at the end of T2 and there would have been no more sequels or TV spinoffs).

  11. Pingback: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Freeze”/”The Exchange” (spoilers) « Christopher L. Bennett: Written Worlds

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