Monday, July 15, 2024

After conviction, Trump questioned the New York statute of limitations. Here are the facts

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  • Trump has said he plans to appeal his conviction, and his lawyer has mentioned the statute of limitations as one issue that could be raised.
  • A felony in New York normally must be charged within 5 years of the crime, but a pandemic-era extension allowed prosecutors more time in this case.
  • The judge ruled before trial that the COVID-19 extension and timing of the case was valid.

A day after he became the first former U.S. president to be convicted of a crime, Donald Trump stood behind a microphone and attacked the case against him.

Trump criticized Judge Juan Merchan, who presided over the more than six-week trial, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who brought the charges against the former president. But he also also questioned the timing of the prosecution.

“They missed the statute of limitations by a lot because this was very old,” he said. “They could have brought this seven years ago instead of bringing it right in the middle of the election. So they missed the statute of limitations.”

A jury found Trump guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide a $130,000 hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. Trump, who remains the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, said he plans to appeal his conviction. In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, mentioned the statute of limitations as one issue that could be raised on appeal.

Let’s take a closer look at the timing involved.

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What is the statute of limitations for Trump?

The term statute of limitations refers to any law requiring a certain type of legal action to be brought within a specified time, said Greg Germain, a law professor at Syracuse University. The specifics vary by jurisdiction and offense.

“Different states and the U.S. have different periods for different kinds of claims,” Germain said.

Trump’s case was tried in New York, where the statute of limitations is five years for all but the most serious felonies and two years for misdemeanors. The charge against Trump, falsifying business records in the first degree, is a Class E felony. That means the statute of limitations is five years. 

Falsifying business records is typically a misdemeanor, but it becomes a felony under New York Law if it was done to commit or conceal another crime. In Trump’s case, prosecutors said he falsified records to interfere in the 2016 presidential election by “unlawful means.” By convicting Trump on all counts, the jury agreed this happened, though the judge noted in jury instructions they could reach a unanimous guilty verdict without agreeing on the specific “unlawful means” used.

New York statute of limitations extended by COVID-19

The crimes Trump was convicted of date back more than five years, but they withstood an initial court challenge because of a pandemic-era extension.

Trump was indicted on March 30, 2023, more than six years after the earliest charge in the indictment, which dates to Feb. 14, 2017. That’s beyond the five years typically allowed by the statute of limitations, but there’s a catch: Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the time limit to file charges in all criminal cases when courts were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Trump’s lawyers moved to dismiss the case in its early stages based on the statute of limitations, but Merchan rejected the argument. In a pretrial decision, the judge said the pandemic extension stretched out the deadline for the prosecution by one year and 47 days.

“In other words, this felony prosecution had to be commenced within six years and 47 days from when the crimes were allegedly committed,” Merchan wrote.

Trump was charged within days of the potential deadline. The extension “brought the conduct described in the indictment within the prescribed five-year time limit,” Merchan wrote.

The judge chose not to address it in his ruling, but prosecutors also argued in opposing Trump’s motion to dismiss that New York criminal procedure law allows the statute of limitations deadline to be extended when someone has been “continuously outside” of the state. Prosecutors contend Trump’s presidency, from 2017 to 2021, met this standard, extending the charging window.

This offers prosecutors another possible way to retain the conviction on appeal if Trump’s team files a timing-based challenge.

Appeals over the statute of limitations often boil down to an argument over when the clock started running, Stanley Brand, a former general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and distinguished fellow at Penn State Dickinson Law, told USA TODAY. That question, however, is complicated by the nature of Trump’s case, with misdemeanors being elevated to felonies.

Germain said he wondered whether the statute of limitations might apply to the underlying – and uncharged – crimes that made falsifying business records a felony.

“I could imagine a court saying that you can’t put together two or three” misdemeanors that are beyond the statute of limitations and turn them into a felony that hasn’t reached that time limit, he said.

He compared the case to “stacked Russian dolls,” with charges that rely on an underlying crime, which itself relies on another underlying crime.

“That’s why it’s such a difficult case to understand,” Germain said.

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