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Statute of Limitations

Criminal Actions, Civil Actions, Recovered Memory: Stopping The Clock, Waiving The Defense, Tolling The Statute

A type of federal or state law that restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought.

Statutes of limitations, which date back to early ROMAN LAW, are a fundamental part of European and U.S. law. These statutes, which apply to both civil and criminal actions, are designed to prevent fraudulent and stale claims from arising after all evidence has been lost or after the facts have become obscure through the passage of time or the defective memory, death, or disappearance of witnesses.

The statute of limitations is a defense that is ordinarily asserted by the defendant to defeat an action brought against him after the appropriate time has elapsed. Therefore, the defendant must plead the defense before the court upon answering the plaintiff's complaint. If the defendant does not do so, he is regarded as having waived the defense and will not be permitted to use it in any subsequent proceedings.

Statutes of limitations are enacted by the legislature, which may either extend or reduce the time limits, subject to certain restrictions. A court cannot extend the time period unless the statute provides such authority. With respect to civil lawsuits, a statute must afford a reasonable period in which an action can be brought. A statute of limitations is unconstitutional if it immediately curtails an existing remedy or provides so little time that it deprives an individual of a reasonable opportunity to start a lawsuit. Depending upon the state statute, the parties themselves may either shorten or extend the prescribed time period by agreement, such as a provision in a contract.

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