Have you been charged with a summary offence which you allegedly committed months or even years in the past?
If you have committed a criminal offence, there is sometimes a time limit for police to bring charges against you.
If you are charged with an offence and this maximum period of time has elapsed, you can’t be convicted or penalised, and the police will have to withdraw the charges against you.
This time period is sometimes known as a statute of limitations.
This is a term used more widely in the US, where there are a number of time limits that apply to different offences, from the minor to the more severe.
It doesn’t matter how compelling the evidence might be, once the statute of limitations has expired, a person can no longer have charges brought against them.
Although NSW doesn’t have a statute of limitations in the same way that the US does, there are still certain set periods of time after which it is not possible to be charged with a criminal offence.
These time periods affect minor offences more than serious offences, however.
Some states previously did have statutes of limitations for major offences, which made it difficult for police officers to charge those accused.
Sexual assault and most other serious offences no longer have a statute of limitations in NSW.
What is the time period for minor offences?
For summary offences in NSW, the time period is generally six months after the offence was allegedly committed, in accordance with Section 179 of the Criminal Procedure Act.
Summary offences are those which are dealt with in a local court by a magistrate, and come with a maximum penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.
Summary offences are generally considered to be less severe than indictable offences, which are dealt with in the district court and have a higher potential penalty.
If you aren’t sure whether you have been charged with a summary offence or an indictable offence, your criminal lawyer will be able to advise you.
There are some exceptions to this rule, including circumstances where the offence is an indictable one which is being dealt with summarily, or if the offence caused the death of a person.
The time period can be longer in these cases, up to two years from when the offence was alleged to have been committed, or up to six months after the conclusion of a coronial inquest relating to the matter.
The six-month rule also doesn’t apply if the alleged offence has a longer statute of limitations according to another act or section of the law.
For example, section 37A of the Fines Act 1996 provides that traffic offences commenced by way of a penalty notice have a limitation period of 12 months where the driver or rider elects to have the matter dealt with in court.
If the alleged offence is seen to be ongoing, for example in drug cases, it is also possible that police could get around the six-month rule and press charges after the usual period has elapsed.
What is the time period for indictable offences?
There is currently no maximum elapsed time period for indictable offences in NSW.
This means that you can be charged with an indictable offence which was committed in the past at any time, if the police and the prosecution have a strong enough case against you.
For example, serious sexual offences are often dealt with many years or even decades after the original incident occurred.
Charges can be brought and defendants can face a trial, despite crimes being allegedly committed decades previously.
The longer the elapsed period of time between an offence being committed and the matter being brought to trial, however, the more difficult it can be for the prosecution to gather sufficient evidence.
It is generally accepted that it is usually harder to convict someone of an indictable offence that was committed a long time ago.
However, the passage of time can also cause difficulties for defendants because they may find it difficult to remember where they were on a specific day many years beforehand, or who they were with.
If you are currently facing criminal charges relating to a matter that took place over six months ago, it’s a good idea to speak to a criminal defence lawyer and check whether or not the offence you have been charged with has a maximum time period.
If it does, you could have the charges against you withdrawn and you won’t have to go to court.
You may even be able to get police to pay your legal costs.