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VIEWPOINT: Why do we have statutes of limitations?


Over the past few months there has been much discussion in the media about Danny Heinrich, who has admitted to the murder of Jacob Wetterling. He cannot be prosecuted for other sex crimes he is believed to have committed during the late 1980s because of Minnesota's statutes of limitation on prosecution for such crimes after a certain period of time. So why do we have statutes of limitation?

First, in the area of civil law there are statutes of limitation against starting civil lawsuits more than a certain number of years after the claim arose. For example, you cannot sue someone for breach of contract more than six years after the contract was breached. The same time limit applies to suits involving consumer debts, fraud and personal injuries from domestic abuse. For other torts that result in personal injury, like libel, slander and assault, the time limit is two years. This two-year limitations period, for example, would apply to a specific personal-injury claim like a dog bite. The time limit is 15 years in mortgage foreclosure proceedings. For faulty construction or services to real estate, the time limit is two years from discovery or 10 years after substantial completion of the construction.

Second, in the area of criminal law, there are statutes of limitation which prevent prosecution for a crime more than a certain number of years after the date of the offense. While there is no statute of limitations for murder, there are the following statutes of limitation for certain crimes:

• Assault: three years

• Arson (first, second and third degree): five years

• Certain thefts where the value of property or services stolen exceeds $35,000: five years

• Criminal sexual conduct: varies based on age of victim and whether physical evidence was collected and preserved that is capable of being tested for its DNA characteristics.

Why do we have statutes of limitation? In 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a Minnesota case, described the rationale as follows:

Statutes of limitation find their justification in necessity and convenience rather than logic and constitute practical devices to spare courts from litigation of stale claims and the citizen from being put to his defense, after memories have faded, witnesses have died or disappeared, and evidence has been lost.

We are all entitled to some kind of assurance and absence of worry that we won't be sued or accused of a crime long after evidence has become stale or been destroyed, or witnesses have moved or cannot be found or have died, thereby making it far more difficult to defend ourselves. Frequently the legislature changes the statute of limitations for a certain claim or re-opens for a brief period the time within which claims must be brought. An example is civil claims of sexual abuse against members of the clergy. In 2013, the legislature provided a temporary three-year window to file civil claims of childhood sexual abuse, claims that otherwise would have been barred by the limitations period.

Not surprisingly, over the years there have been many appeals to Minnesota appellate courts on issues of whether a statute of limitations applies in a particular case and whether the applicable time period passed so as to bar the lawsuit. That is why insurance companies stress to their customers, and put in insurance policies, that they must be timely notified of any accidents or damage to insured property. This is to protect the insurance company and its customer in the event a lawsuit is brought within the six years following the accident.

Remember, it's in your court.

Steve Halsey is chambered in Wright County District Court in Buffalo. Halsey is the host of "The District Court Show" on local cable TV public access channels throughout the 10th Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at districtcourtshow. Halsey may also be heard on "Legal Happenings" on KRWC 1360 AM (Buffalo) at 12:30 p.m. Saturdays.