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.
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.
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.