In most criminal cases there is a strict time limit that must be followed by prosecutors. This is known as a “statute of limitations.” It is legislation that specifies the maximum length of time that may pass between the commission of an alleged crime and the bringing of formal charges against the defendant.
For misdemeanor crimes, the statute of limitations is two years. More precisely, Article 12.02 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states that prosecutors must present an “indictment or information for any Class A or Class B misdemeanor within two years of the date of the commission of the offense.” For Class C misdemeanors, which included many traffic violations, a “complaint or information” must also be presented within two years.
The use of the terms “indictment,” “information,” and “complaint” often confuse individuals unfamiliar with the legal system. Basically, an indictment or information represents a formal charging document filed by a prosecutor. Serious misdemeanor offenses are typically charged by information. A complaint, in contrast, is a less formal charging document often issued by a police officer.
Complaints vs. Indictment: Why the Charging Document Matters
While prosecutors are normally savvy enough to charge a defendant before the statute of limitations expires, there are some notable exceptions. For example, in a 2015 case, State v. Drummond, the Texas First District Court of Appeals here in Houston upheld a trial court’s decision to dismiss a misdemeanor charge on statute of limitations grounds. The defendant, a sergeant with the Harris County Constable’s Office, was charged with “official oppression,” which is a Class A misdemeanor.
Prosecutors alleged the defendant committed his offense on September 10, 2011. On September 9, 2013, prosecutors presented a “complaint” to a local magistrate, seeking a warrant for the defendant’s arrest. A grand jury subsequently issued an indictment for the defendant in December 2013.
But as the First District explained, Article 12.02 requires a return of an “indictment” or “information” within the two-year limitations period. The defendant’s initial arrest was based solely on a “complaint.” That would have been sufficient for a Class C misdemeanor charge, the appeals court said, but not a Class A misdemeanor. In other words, since the state did not present an indictment or information until after September 10, 2013, it could not prosecute the defendant at all.
How the Statute of Limitations Can Affect Your Ability to Clear Your Criminal Records
One other thing to note about the statute of limitations: It can also delay your ability to seek an expunction of a misdemeanor charge that is later dropped. This comes from a 2007 opinion from the Supreme Court of Texas, State v. Beam. A defendant was charged with a misdemeanor in June 2005. Under a plea agreement, the charge was dismissed and the defendant allowed a “deferred adjudication” on a lesser charge. In February 2016, the defendant moved for an expunction, i.e., an order to erase the arrest from her criminal record.
The Supreme Court explained that under Texas law, the statute of limitations period must expire before a defendant may petition for expunction. The defendant in this case, therefore, needed to wait until the two-year limitations period for misdemeanor offenses elapsed.
Speak with a Houston Misdemeanor Crimes Defense Lawyer Today
The statute of limitations is just one of many procedural issues you will need to deal with when facing misdemeanor charges. An experienced Houston criminal defense attorney can help guide you through this process and zealously represent your interests. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today in Houston, Galveston, or League City if you need assistance. Call (281) 280-0100.