How long do authorities have to process DNA evidence in a criminal case before a person can no longer be prosecuted based on that evidence? That was the question at the heart of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling last month that reversed the conviction of a man who had been accused of breaking into his neighbor’s home and sexually assaulting her in 2001.
Under New Jersey law, there’s a five-year statute of limitations for prosecuting most crimes. However, when DNA evidence is involved, that five-year period doesn’t begin until authorities obtain a suspect’s DNA.
The 2001 case behind the ruling
In the case that made it to the state’s high court, police collected DNA evidence from the victim. Although they had the plaintiff’s DNA from another case in 2004, due to changing regulations and the New Jersey law enforcement’s delay in implementing those changes, they didn’t match it to the sexual assault case until 2016.
The man was convicted on lesser charges of criminal trespass and criminal sexual contact. He appealed the conviction on the grounds that the match occurred long past that statute of limitations since they had his DNA in 2004. He lost his appeal, so he took the case to the Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court stated, “A plain reading of the statute leads to the conclusion that the statute of limitations begins to run…when the state possesses both the physical evidence from the crime and a suspect’s DNA sample, not when a match occurs.” The decision noted that “a contrary reading would essentially endorse inaction by a prosecution equipped with all the necessary components to identify a suspect, a reading that cannot be reconciled with the protective purpose of a statute of limitations.”
Why delays can harm defendants
Statutes of limitations involving crimes are crucial for a number of reasons. Prosecuting someone many years after an alleged crime involves dealing with witnesses whose memories have faded or are no longer around. Evidence may also be lost or degraded.
Defendants have the right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution. While our justice system can seem anything but speedy – particularly when your future is on the line. However, law enforcement authorities, including prosecutors, still have to follow the law. That’s just one reason it’s crucial to have legal guidance to protect your rights.