Limitations, Statute of

Ever since I was a little kid, I remember criminals and their hangers-on on TV and in the movies discussing the statute of limitations. When the statute of limitations on their particular crime expired, they would be free to return to a life of ease. For those shows that featured the exploits of authority types, the statute of limitations provided a drama-inducing deadline; if the criminals were not put to justice by the time the statute of limitations expired, they would get off scott-free.

So can someone explain to me how “expired” is the right word here? As I understand it, a statute of limitations is a law (that’s what “statute” means, right?) that says that after 7 years, you can no longer be prosecuted for insurance fraud (or whatever). So isn’t “expired” exactly the wrong word? Isn’t the seven-year mark exactly when the statute takes effect?

2 thoughts on “Limitations, Statute of

  1. You raise some interesting points. I believe I know how to resolve this.

    I think there’s something odd about saying a statute “takes effect” in the way you describe. Once a law (or statute) is passed, it has taken effect.

    Of course, what you are doing is referring to a process or procedure that results from the actual statute itself. And that is precisely the sense in which “statute of limitations” is used most of the time. However, in this case, the procedure that results from this kind of law is the keeping track of a maximum time period. When this procedure terminates (because legally there is no recourse that can be taken by the authorities or whatever), it makes some sense to refer to the statute as having “expired”. Using your words, the procedure “takes effect” at the beginning of the time period. There is clearly no need to keep track of things after the time period ends.

    n.b. I checked which gives a definition of “statute” as that of a procedure, etc., that results from the actual statute. It’s apparently common usage.

  2. Instead of saying a statute of limitations has “expired” (when in fact the statute is still in force), it’s better to say the statute has “run,” meaning that the time for filing under the statute has run out.

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