When a reader asked how long one must keep income tax records, an IRS spokesman said three years is usually long enough - except where fraud is involved.

In as much as the various states use 50 different tax codes, I suggested that those who file state tax returns might ask their local officials what is expected of them. Little did I know that there is a bizarre state tax case in progress right in our own back yard.

Margaret Chica of Springfield wishes she had kept her Virginia income tax records for 23 years instead of for just three. "Last year," she wrote, "we were notified by the State of Virginia that I had failed to pay my state income tax for 1954. Naturally, I thought that either they had the year wrong or it was a joke. They didn't have the year wrong, and it was no joke.

"After several phone calls to Richmond, several calls to the tax people at Bailey's Crossroads, and several calls to the Alexandria courthouse, I find that there is no statute of limitations on taxes and murder.

"Richmond and Alexandria claim they have found an IBM printing that lists my name on it. They also stated it was possible the list was used for late returns. At any rate, the only answer I get from both is, 'You have to pay.'

"The gentleman at Bailey's Crossroads was the best, though . . . He is the one who kept saying there are no limitations on taxes and murder.

"No one has tried to help, or suggest what alternatives are open to me. Everyone just insists, 'Pay!'

"I even called the bank I used at the time, and still use. The first clerk was very snotty and laughed and said there was no way they could help.

"A supervisor later told me they would not be able to help since I probably couldn't afford the cost of paying overtime for a search of the old files.

"I have done everything I could think of. Can you imagine the interest and the penalties I will have to pay? If you can help me straighten this out I will be grateful."

Margaret, the only people who can straighten this out are the ones who created the situation by demanding payment of a dubious 23-year-old claim. What you and I may be able to do is help focus their attention on the merit of your position.

To that end, you should talk to your representative in the House of Delegates. Ask him whether he could produce records with which to defend himself against a 23-yeear-old charge. Also ask him whether Virginia's banking laws require your bank to tell you whether you wrote a check to pay your 1954 state income tax.

If present laws do not require your bank to give you the information you need, let your bank's president know that you are going to start lobbying to have them tightened. Alert him to the fact that he is about to lose a customer of more than 23 years standing and about to gain a public antagonist. If he's worth his salary, he'll see that your records are checked.

When criminals are not given a speedy trial, they are freed even though 50 eyewitnesses are willing to swear to their guilt. "Justice delayed is justice denied" because, as time passes, memories dim, records are lost or discarded, witnesses move away or die. If the law is now going to permit prosecution of 23-year-old charges, we had better begin building 100 million new jail cells without a moment's delay.

If your representative in the House of Delegates won't help, talk to your state senator. If he can't or won't do anything for you, write a letter to the governor and ask him why his income tax people are 23 years behind in their work. Even the District of Columbia's water department isn't in that big a mess. If it becomes necessary, write to your Congressman. And if all else fails, get in touch with me again and I'll try to find out who made the decision to demand payment on a 23-year-old case of this kind. At the very least, I think it would be interesting to get that guy's name into the paper and ponder his explanation of why he is pursuing such a flimsy case.