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Statute of Limitations for Domestic Violence

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | May 20, 2024

Under law, the statute of limitations (SOL) refers to the maximum period of time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. This legal principle ensures that cases are brought to court within a reasonable timeframe.

In the case of criminal offenses, it protects individuals from facing the threat of criminal charges indefinitely. For most crimes, California law sets the statute of limitations at one to three years; however, recent changes to the law have extended the statute of limitations for domestic violence crimes in California to five years.

Statute of Limitations for Domestic Violence in California
Domestic violence prosecutors now have 5 years from the date of the incident to file charges.

If you have been implicated in domestic violence (DV), the victim now has five years to come forward, and prosecutors now have five years from the time of the alleged incident to bring charges.

Simply put, the statute of limitations for criminal cases in California is generally one year for misdemeanors and three years for felonies. However, more serious cases give prosecutors additional time to file charges, and no statute of limitations applies to the most serious crimes, such as rape and murder.

As noted, for domestic violence in California, the statute of limitations is now five years from the date of the incident. This is substantially longer than most other crimes and was recently extended in 2020.

The extension allows for the length of time that it typically takes some victims to come forward and report the DV incident.

Domestic violence is frequently called a "secret crime" because many victims do not report an intimate partner to the police because they don't want them to face prosecution, especially when children are involved.

As noted, the SOL used to be one year for any misdemeanor DV and three years for a felony. With the recent extension, victims of domestic violence have five years to file a police report or for the alleged abuser to be charged with a crime.

Under the same legislation that extended the statute of limitations, a new category of domestic violence was introduced called "coercive control," which provides the district attorney with broader powers to charge domestic violence incidents that do not result in physical violence but involve mental or emotional abuse from another household member. Let's review in more detail below.

What is the Standard Statute of Limitations for California Crimes?

California's legal system categorizes crimes into misdemeanors and felonies, each with its statute of limitations. Consider the following:

  • Misdemeanors have a statute of limitations of one year.
  • Felonies carry a three-year limitation period.
  • Legal actions must be initiated within these timeframes, or prosecutors forfeit the ability to bring charges.

Domestic violence offenses involving harm or threats of harm against a partner or family member once fell squarely within these standard statutes of limitations.

The severity of the crime determined whether it was treated as a misdemeanor or felony, thus dictating the applicable statute of limitations.

This framework, however, posed challenges for victims who were often reluctant to come forward immediately due to fear, pressure, or the complexities of their situations.

The Passage of SB 273

Recognizing the unique dynamics of domestic violence cases, the California legislature enacted SB 273 in 2020.

California Senate Bill 273

This landmark legislation made significant changes to the state's domestic violence laws, including extending the statute of limitations to five years for all domestic violence offenses, irrespective of whether they would traditionally be classified as misdemeanors or felonies.

This extension provides victims with a more extended period to make the difficult decision to pursue legal action against their abusers. It also gives prosecutors more time to decide whether criminal charges are appropriate.

SB 273 also expanded the definition of domestic violence to include "coercive control," meaning alleged victims can now seek protective orders in response to patterns of abuse beyond physical violence.

Simply put, SB 273, which became law on January 1, 2020, extended the period of time in which a domestic violence case can be filed. California Penal Code 13700 PC defines domestic violence.

What are the Implications of the New Statute of Limitations?

The primary motivation behind SB 273 is to empower victims of domestic violence. The extended timeframe acknowledges the complexities and emotional challenges victims face in coming forward.

It is well-documented that victims may delay reporting such incidents due to fear, psychological trauma, economic dependence, or the hope of reconciliation. This provides a broader window to seek justice and protection, aiming to address the power imbalances often at play in these situations.

Conversely, and unfortunately, this law also may have profoundly negative implications for the accused. It may especially create more difficulties and disruptions for people who are falsely or unfairly accused of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence in California

This can impact various aspects of life, including personal relationships, employment opportunities, and overall social standing.

The extended statute of limitations also means that accusations can surface and lead to legal proceedings years after the alleged incident. During this time, exculpatory evidence may diminish, and witness memories may fade.

No one has the right to abuse another person, especially an intimate partner, within the confines of a home. Victims have the right to seek justice, but not all will come forward and report what's happened to them.

Sometimes, the reluctance of victims to come forward is out of fear of retaliation or because they feel intimidated. Some even fear for their life, and sometimes the reluctance is out of a sense of shame, loyalty, or even love for an abusive spouse, who may be the father of children in the household.

Thus, it can be a long time before a victim steps forward to report the abuse and many times; it's not reported at all.

However, that said, it should be noted that there are many documented cases of false domestic violence accusations. These can occur out of anger after a relationship breakup during divorce proceedings or a child custody battle.

What is the Role of a Criminal Defense Attorney?

The new statute of limitations for domestic violence underscores the need for skilled legal representation to navigate the increased complexity of defending against older claims.

If you've been accused of domestic violence, or if you believe you might be charged based on an older incident, here are some advantages to hiring a California criminal defense attorney sooner rather than later:

  • Guidance on Legal Rights and Options: An attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options.
  • Preserving Evidence: An attorney can investigate the alleged incident and take steps to protect evidence that could exonerate you (for example, saving copies of video, audio, or text messages) and recording and storing eyewitness accounts while memories are fresh.
  • Defense Strategy Development: A skilled attorney will develop a comprehensive defense strategy considering all available evidence, potential witnesses, and legal precedents. This strategy may involve challenging the validity of the allegations, negotiating plea deals, or fighting the charges in court.
  • Managing Timelines: With the extended statute of limitations, managing legal deadlines and ensuring that rights are not waived becomes crucial. An attorney will keep track of these timelines and take proactive steps to protect the client's interests.

Contact our criminal defense law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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