University of Miami Law Review


Under the statute of limitations applicable to most federal crimes, 18 U.S.C. § 3282(a), “no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense, not capital, unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within five years next after such offense shall have been committed.” That long-standing, generally uncontroversial procedural statute was thrust into the spotlight in 2020, when courts, prosecutors, and criminal defendants confronted an unprecedented and extraordinary scenario.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many federal district courts suspended grand juries to prevent the spread of the highly contagious life-threatening virus through group congregation. Indeed, to combat the rampant and unabating COVID-19 outbreak in Florida, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida suspended grand juries from March 26, 2020, until November 17, 2020, creating a nearly eight-month period during which prosecutors could not obtain indictments. But, under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, criminal defendants have the right to be prosecuted by indictment. Thus, during the grand jury suspension, the five-year statute of limitations applicable to most federal crimes was expiring on uncharged criminal conduct that ended in 2015 at a time when prosecutors could not comply with the Fifth Amendment. Despite being alerted of this constitutional issue, Congress did not enact legislation giving either the Chief Judge of the United States Supreme Court or the Chief Judges of the United States District Courts authority to suspend statutes of limitations during national emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, that affect the functioning of the courts. The combination of that judicial decision to suspend grand juries and that legislative decision not to suspend statutes of limitations posed a pandemic riddle: how can prosecutors comply with both the statutes of limitations and the Fifth Amendment when there are no grand juries?
This Article examines the text of 18 U.S.C. § 3282(a), Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a), and 18 U.S.C. §§ 3288 and 3289; the purposes of statutes of limitations and the Fifth Amendment right to prosecution by indictment; and the related legislative history. Based on that examination, this Article suggests that, for most federal crimes, when defendants assert their Fifth Amendment right to prosecution by indictment during a pandemic (or other national emergency) that suspended grand juries and the statute of limitations on their alleged crimes is expiring, prosecutors can uphold that constitutional right and that statutory privilege as well as the public interest in seeing lawbreakers brought to justice by: (1) filing an information to toll the statute of limitations under 18 U.S.C. § 3282(a); (2) dismissing that information without prejudice under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) if the defendant does not waive his right to prosecution by indictment; and (3) obtaining a timely indictment within six months of the resumption of grand juries under the savings clauses in 18 U.S.C. §§ 3288 and 3289 for re-prosecutions after the dismissal of a timely filed information. This Article concludes that there already is a mechanism in the federal statute of limitations appliable to most federal crimes that allows prosecutors to constitutionally preserve criminal charges when a national emergency prevents grand juries from finding indictments.