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Sluggish Prosecutors Are the Criminal’s Best Friend

by Garland M Baker on June 25, 2007

Bad guys exploit statute of limitations

Costa Rica is experiencing a meltdown in its court system. This is especially true in the criminal courts. Many cases are lapsing and are in mora judicial, judicial neglect.

Calling or writing officials regarding a case is a joke.

An answer to a written pronto despacho, an immediate attention request, last week was horrifying. The prosecutor in charge of an obvious stolen property case stated she is overwhelmed and asked that victims respect her predicament.

Threatening to file an amparo or request for help from the Sala IV met with the statement “Go ahead, I will put it on the stack of them I already have.”

Crooks know this and are playing with the legal procedures — especially the statute of limitations — to avoid penalties for their crimes. Every crime in Costa Rica mandates a unique statute of limitations based on the maximum penalty for the crime. They range from one year to 15 years for very serious crimes and eight months for lesser infringements like public disorder.

For example, the crime of stealing a piece of property by forging someone’s signature carries a six-year jail term, which translates into a six-year statute of limitations as well.

The statute of limitations begins to run the day after the criminal act.

Now here is what the crooks know and most honest people do not:

Filing a complaint about a crime to authorities cuts the statute of limitations period in half. Yes, that means a six-year period becomes three.

There are three points in a judicial process that can interrupt the statute of limitations. The first is the accusation, referred to as the imputación formal. The second is a resolution calling for a preliminary audience. Last, is sentencing.

In other words, if a smart crook can avoid getting served by the authorities for forging a signature for three years, he or she will get away with the crime. Forget hiding out. Malefactors know the court system is working in their favor. All they have to do is do nothing, sit back, and see if the prosecutor does his or her job. They know from the get-go no bulldog will be on their case, only a bunch of pussycats.

Yes, the fiscalia or public prosecutor’s office in the Ministerio Público plays musical chairs with the staff — all of them — including the prosecutors. They never get a chance to really know a case because they are assigned another job before they do and then another and another.

This fact is the biggest complaint of most Costa Rican lawyers–why the criminal justice system is such a mess and why the bad guys get away with their crimes.

A Californian fighting for his property stolen from him almost lost it due to the statute of limitations rules of Costa Rica. He had to fight and fight hard to get to his day in court. He had to skirt the normal procedures, fire the prosecutor and go to trial without the support of the prosecutor’s office to win the case and get his property back.

To catch a thief in Costa Rica people need to know more about the laws than thieves do and push the court system hard. Usually a victim’s lawyers should do the pushing so a victim needs to push the lawyer if there is a criminal action in court. Prosecutors, in theory, represent victims. However, they are not too keen on meeting with the victims they represent. They prefer to deal with their own kind, other lawyers, so they can talk legal talk.

Expats with a case in Costa Rica’s criminal court system need to know the statute of limitations of their case and know where the case is within the legal process.

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