Whether the tolling provision of the statute of limitations for felony prosecutions applies to the time during which the identity of the defendant remains unknown despite intense police efforts to identify and find the defendant.
Yes. The tolling provision applies to situations in which both the identity and location of the defendant remain unknown as well as to situations in which the identity of the defendant is known, but his or her location is not.
Defendant Seda, the so-called "Zodiac Killer," stood accused of three counts of attempted murder, two of which were at issue in this trial, as well as related felony charges of assault and criminal weapons possession. The defendant allegedly authored letters to the police and the New York Post claiming responsibility for the two shootings, which occured in Brooklyn in 1990. In the letters, he identified himself only as "The Zodiac". Police conducted extensive investigations to locate "The Zodiac" from 1990 until his arrest in 1996.
At trial, the defendant moved to dismiss the charges stemming from the two shootings, contending that the charges were time-barred by the five year statute of limitations. Rejecting the People's argument that the statute of limitations tolled any time during which the defendant's "whereabouts" were unknown and unascertainable by the exercise of reasonable diligence, the Supreme Court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss.
The Appellate Division, Second Division, unanimously reversed the Supreme Court ruling, holding that the statute "does not condition the applicability of the toll upon the People's knowledge of the defendant's identity." The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division ruling.
The Court's task was to construe a provision in the statute of limitations that permitted tolling while "the whereabouts of the defendant were contintuously unknown and unascertainable by the exercise of reasonable diligence." The defense argued that "whereabouts" for purposes of this statute referred only to situations in which the identity of the defendant is established, but his or her location is unknown. To this end, the defendant argues, the statute of limitations could not be tolled for the period of time during which the People knew neither the identity nor the location of the defendant. The Court declined to adopt this construction, holding that the toll is not conditioned on the People's knowledge of the defendant's identity.
The Court relied on the statute's purposes and legislative history. The policy behind the Legislature's enactment of the statute of limitations, as articulated by the Court, was to prevent prosecution of stale claims while ensuring that the police have sufficient time to bring suspected criminals to justice by imposing the tolling exceptions. The Court of Appeals, in affirming the Appellate Division's ruling, held that the defendant's proposed construction did not comport with this policy and was not supported by legislative history of the statute.