The statute of limitations does not preclude the State from prosecuting an individual just because “X number of years” has passed since the date of the alleged offense. I start with that, because as a practicing criminal defense attorney, I find that people think that’s what it means.
The statute of limitations merely requires the State to file a formal charging instrument against the defendant within a certain time period. In Texas, the statute is 2 years for all misdemeanors, at least 3 years for felonies and sometimes more. (also see: more info about specific time periods for the Texas statute of limitations.)
Let’s use an assault arrest in Austin, Texas as an example.
If it’s a misdemeanor assault, the statute of limitations is 2 years. The Travis County County Attorney’s Office prosecutes misdemeanors, so they have two years to file a complaint and information at the Travis County Clerk’s office charging you with misdemeanor assault.
A complaint is a sworn document in which someone states under oath that they have “good reason to believe” that you committed the offense of misdemeanor assault. The information is the formal charging instrument, and for all intents and purposes is usually an almost verbatim copy of the complaint.
Once these documents are filed, the statute of limitations is “tolled”; that is, it stops running.
So, hypothetically speaking, if the prosecutor files the complaint and information in the 23rd month after the assault is alleged to haave happened, they are not required to take your case to trial in the next month. (If only it were so, because that would almost always be a practical impossibility for them.)
The case would then run its normal course, with all the resets and continuances for discovery that happen in any criminal case.
If it’s a felony assault, the statute of limitations is 3 years. The Travis County District Attorney’s Office handles felonies, so they have 3 years to take your case to a Grand Jury for indictment. Again, if you were indicted in the 35th month, the statute stops running, and the case could drag on well past 3 years after the date of offense.
Now, as a practical matter, this doesn’t happen very often. But, again, as long as the state filed the charging instrument, either an ‘information’ for a misdemeanor, or got a Grand Jury to return an indictment, the statute of limitations no longer applies.