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Marshall County Appeal of Sex Offense Conviction Frees Client Despite Guilty Plea Due to Expired Statute of Limitations

by William L. Pfeifer, Jr. on July 10, 2011

in Appeals, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure

Marshall County Court House

Image by jimmywayne via Flickr

A Marshall County appellate case handled by our office recently demonstrated the importance of checking the statute of limitations on any felony charge in Alabama before accepting a plea bargain or pleading guilty. Normally I avoid getting into too many details of the specific appeals handled by our office, but some of the particular facts of this one provide an important lesson to both lawyers and defendants. Never plead guilty, or let a client plead guilty, until you have checked to see whether the statute of limitations has expired.

We were retained to handle the appeal of a defendant who had entered a guilty plea and was convicted of a sex offense in Marshall County for an incident that had happened over fifteen years ago. Although his court appointed lawyer told him he would probably receive probation, the judge ordered him incarcerated in an Alabama prison when he went to his sentencing hearing at the courthouse in Guntersville. It was not until after he was behind bars that his family contacted us for help.

After the defendant was sent to jail by the judge, the family started doing their own legal research and discovered that there was a statute of limitations on this charge of three years. This was something that their trial lawyer had overlooked, and when asked about it he apparently denied that there was a statute of limitations on the charge. In fairness to the lawyer, most sex offenses do not have a statute of limitations due to reasons explained below, but in this particular case the statute of limitations still applied and the lawyer should have asserted it as a defense. When the family contacted our office and inquired about this issue, I confirmed to them that the statute of limitations was three years and that the charge should never have been indicted in the first place. Their family member was incarcerated on a void indictment and could not be legally held in prison, but it would take a lot of work to prove he should be released.

Normally setting aside a guilty plea or appealing a conviction that came from a guilty plea is very difficult. We have previously posted articles on this site about some of the ways that a conviction can be set aside even after a guilty plea, but those circumstances can be hard to prove. However, in this case the family acted quickly and retained us in time to make a successful challenge to his incarceration.

Alabama Code § 15-3-1 (1975) sets the statute of limitations for felony charges as three years, except as provided in Alabama Code §§ 15-3-3 (1975) and 15-3-5 (1975). Those Code sections provide for situations where the statute of limitations is extended, and for some situations there is no statute of limitations at all. Section 15-3-3 deals solely with conversion of public revenues, which was not relevant in this case. However, § 15-3-5 provides a detailed list of the circumstances in which a felony will not be subject to a statute of limitations. Under that section, the list of circumstances where a sex offense will not have a statute of limitations is pretty broad (usually due to the use of force or the age of the victim), but there are still many situations where a sex offense must be prosecuted within three years. The factors that would have removed the statute of limitations from this defendant’s case were not present.

A number of Alabama appellate cases from the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court have addressed the statute of limitations issue. “The statute of limitations is a jurisdictional matter.”Hines v. State, 516 So. 2d 937, 938 (Ala. Crim. App. 1987).  “The statute of limitations is jurisdictional and an indictment returned after the expiration of the limitations period is void.” Ex parte Campbell, 784 So. 2d 323, 325 (Ala. 2000).  A guilty plea does not waive the issue of the expiration of the statute of limitations because a guilty plea only waives nonjurisdictional defects. Speigner v. State, 663 So. 2d 1024 (Ala. Crim. App. 1994).

Although it took several months for the case to move through the Alabama appeals process, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reviewed the conviction and remanded the case back to Marshall County  to conduct an evidentiary hearing that confirmed the statute of limitations had  expired. After hearing testimony, the court agreed that the statute of limitations had expired, set aside the guilty plea, voided the conviction, and freed our client from prison.  An added benefit of the conviction being declared void was that the client’s name and photo was removed from the Alabama sex offender registry, allowing him to live a normal life again.

If you would like to discuss having our office represent you or a family member on appeal, please fill out our Contact form. Just like this defendant did not realize he had a legal defense to this charge that would have kept him out of prison and off the sex offender registry, there may be defenses to your case that would keep you from being convicted as well. We look forward to hearing from you.

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