Recent stories on Esquire.com and in The Globe and Mail told the tale of Ronald Stan who, in 1977, burned down a barn in Middlesex County, then fled the country, assumed a new identity, and lived in rural Oklahoma for the next 37 years. Though presumed and officially declared dead, he was recently located by Middlesex Ontario Provincial Police during a routine audit of old cases. The police notified American authorities as well as the barn owners, but no charges will be filed or any further action taken against the man now known as “Jeff Walton.” “There is no basis for charges under the Criminal Code of Canada, so we won’t be laying any charges in this matter,” said Middlesex OPP Const. Laurie Houghton.
While Constable Houghton did not specify the reason they are letting Mr. Stan/Walton off the hook, the 37-year gap between criminal offence and potential criminal charges raises the issue of how long authorities have after a crime is committed to charge a suspect with an offence. Statutes of limitation, as they are called, define how much time authorities have to bring criminal charges after the criminal act allegedly occurred.
Under the Criminal Code of Canada, only summary offences are subject to a statute of limitations. Pursuant to Section 786(2), no criminal proceedings may commence more than six months after the commission of the summary offence in question.
However, for indictable offences, there is no specific time limitation on when an accused must be charged, although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires that, once charged, the accused be tried within a reasonable time. In determining what constitutes a “reasonable time,” the clock starts ticking when the original charge has been laid as opposed to when the crime was actually committed. As such, those who commit serious offences such as rape, murder, and even theft (if over $5,000) cannot avoid facing criminal charges simply because of the passing of time.
Given that the crime allegedly committed by Mr. Stan/Walton appears to have been arson, which is an indictable offence, the 37 years he has spent “on the run” would not seem to bar his prosecution. Whether it was worth the authorities’ time at this point is another matter.
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