California Laws on the Criminal Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations sets forth maximum time limits for the government to file criminal charges in a case.
In California, an easy general statute of limitations rules to remember are:
- one year for a misdemeanor crime, and
- three years for a felony crime.
If a felony offense is punishable by 8 or more years in prison, then the statute of limitations is 6 years.
Violent felony crimes normally have longer statutes of limitations, and some crimes, such as Penal Code 187 PC murder, have no statute of limitations.
This means a prosecutor can file criminal charges for the alleged offense at any time.
In some cases, statute of limitations are “tolled” (suspended), which allows the government additional time bring a case against someone.
California laws set time limits for most criminal offenses, as well as various exceptions and tolling rules.
If a prosecutor charges somebody with a crime after the applicable time has passed, they will be able to get the case dismissed.
For additional detailed information, our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys are providing a review below.
Why Are Statutes of Limitations Important?
Statutes of limitations (SOL) are critical because they protect the defendant's rights. As time passes, crucial evidence that might prove innocence could be lost with time.
For example, witnesses may have moved or they don't remember all the facts of the case after several years have passed.
The rationale is that it becomes harder to defend against charges as time has gone by. In other words, SOL exist in an effort to ensure fairness for a defendant.
Some crimes, however, such as murder and rape with violence, may not have a statute of limitations. Usually, this is only for more serious criminal offenses.
The Discovery Rule is used in order to determine when the clock starts to run, which is discussed below.
California Statue of Limitations Law
Several Penal Codes address the statutes of limitations in California. The range is usually from one year for many misdemeanors, three years for many felonies, to no time limit at all for crimes that are punishable by death or by life in prison.
If there is no statute of limitations, the prosecutor may bring charges against someone at any time.
Broadly, most of the information can be found within California Penal Codes 799-802. Let's take a look at some of them.
California Penal Code 799 PC states that there are crimes that have NO limitation. Broadly speaking, these can be categorized into three areas—offenses punishable by death, embezzlement of public funds, and offenses publishable by life in prison. For example:
- Penal Code 187 PC – murder,
- Penal Code 207/209 PC – kidnapping,
- Penal Code 261 PC – rape.
California Penal Code 800 PC states that if a crime is punishable with eight years or more of imprisonment in the state prison, the statute of limitations is six years. For example:
- Penal Code 211 PC – first-degree robbery,
- Penal Code 451 PC – arson.
California Penal Code 801 PC states that apart from those crimes that fall into the two prior statutes, the statute of limitations for offenses punishable by imprisonment is three years. For example:
California Penal Code 802(a) PC states that aside from “as provided in subdivision (b), (c), (d), or (e),” if an offense isn't punishable by death or imprisonment, the statute of limitations is one year. For example:
- Vehicle Code 23152 VC – driving under the influence,
- Vehicle Code 20002 VC – misdemeanor hit and run,
- Penal Code 484 PC – petty theft.
When the misdemeanor charge is a “wobbler” that could have been filed as a felony crime, the statute of limitations is based on the maximum prison term that defendant could have received if the case had been filed as a felony.
Criminal Offenses and Their Statute of Limitations
In the state of California, there is a lot of nuance to how long the statute of limitations may be for an offense.
However, it is possible to examine some of the general categories that are unique from the above penal code references.
- 10 years: failing to register as a sex offender after a conviction; offenses that are connected to producing child pornography;
- 5 years: any sort of elder crime or abuse, or any crime against other dependent adults (apart from theft & embezzlement);
- 4 years: actions that include theft, fraud, embezzlement, or breach of trust with an elder, or misconduct by a public official or employee;
- 3 years: specific offenses that are committed against a minor who's younger than 14;
- 2 years: sexual crimes by a therapist or doctor toward a patient.
Crimes That Do Not Have a Statute of Limitations
As stated above, there are types of crimes that do not have a statute of limitations. Some examples include:
- rape that involves force or violence;
- spousal rape that involves force or violence;
- murder in the first degree;
- aggravated sexual assault of a child (up until the victim turns 40);
- embezzlement of public money.
When does the clock start keeping time?
In California, the Discovery Rule dictates when the time begins for the statute of limitations.
Specifically, that means that the clock for the statute of limitations starts when an offense is discovered, rather than when the offense occurred.
As an example, if a person committed a crime (that did have a statute of limitations) on March 3, 2021, but the offense was only discovered six months later, on September 3, 2021, the clock would start at that time.
Difference between criminal and civil statute of limitations
It's important to understand that the statute of limitations in California varies based on the type of case and the specific offense.
Civil statutes of limitations may exceed criminal statutes, and so even if the criminal statute of limitations has expired, an individual may still face a civil lawsuit for alleged actions.
Additionally, there's often a difference in who files the lawsuits: criminal lawsuits are usually filed by prosecutors, whereas civil lawsuits are most likely to be filed by alleged victims or their families.
Criminal Defense Attorneys Serving Southern California
If you or someone you know needs assistance with any stage of a criminal investigation or court process, the top-rated law firm of Eisner Gorin LLP can help you.
Effective legal representation can have a significant effect on the outcome of a case.
If you were charged with an old crime, then there might be crucial statute of limitations violations.
If the criminal case was filed after expiration of the statute of limitations, the judge will dismiss the case.
We need to first closely examine all the details of your case to in order to provide legal advice.
For more information about California's statute of limitations and how they might apply to your criminal case, contact our law firm at (310) 328-3776 for a consultation.