Easing the Tension Between Statutes of Limitations and the Continuing Offense Doctrine

Boles, Jeffrey R. | April 1, 2012

This Article is the first to analyze comprehensively the relationship between the continuing offense doctrine and criminal statutes of limitations. The continuing offense doctrine is a powerful tool for prosecutors who face statute of limitations challenges. It functions to delay the running of statutes of limitations for certain crimes by postponing the completion of those crimes. In order to trigger the operation of the doctrine, a court must conclude that a particular crime is a “continuing offense” for statute of limitations purposes. Identifying what crimes are continuing offenses has been a problematic exercise for federal courts, leading to a growing number of conflicting approaches and circuit splits. Moreover, courts are employing the continuing offense doctrine with increasing frequency, subjecting otherwise time-barred conduct to prosecution and boosting the risk of violation of the rights of the defendant, such as prosecution based upon stale evidence. This Article examines the shortcomings of the continuing offense doctrine and its potential for misuse in the statute of limitations context, and provides solutions to reform the doctrine and restore order in what has become a chaotic area of jurisprudence.