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Statute of Limitations in Criminal Cases

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jan 13, 2024

The statute of limitations outlines the maximum time limits for prosecutors to file criminal charges in a case.  In California, the general rules to remember are 
one year for a misdemeanor crime and three years for a felony.

Statute of Limitations in California Criminal Cases
California's criminal SOL is typically one year for misdemeanors and three years for felonies.

However, if a felony is punishable by eight or more years in prison, the statute of limitations is six years. Violent felony offenses typically have longer statutes of limitations, and Penal Code 187 PC murder has no statute of limitations.

In some cases, the statute of limitations is “tolled” (suspended), allowing the additional prosecution time to bring a case against someone. California laws mainly set a time limit for filing charges, along with some exceptions and tolling rules. If someone is charged with a crime after the applicable time has passed, they can get the case dropped. 

Statutes of limitations (SOL) are crucial because they protect the defendant's rights. For example, evidence that might prove their innocence could be lost as time passes. Further, witnesses could have moved, or their memory faded over time. In other words, SOL exists to ensure fairness for a criminal defendant.

Some serious crimes don't have a statute of limitations. The Discovery Rule is used to determine when the clock starts running. Our California criminal defense lawyers will review this topic further below.

California Statue of Limitations Law - Explained

Several Penal Codes deal with the statute of limitations in California. As noted, they range from one year for misdemeanors to three years for felonies, with no time limit for crimes that are punishable by death or life in prison.  Generally, most of the information is within California Penal Codes 799-802. Let's review them below. 

No statute of limitation

California Penal Code 799 PC says some crimes have NO limitation. Generally, they are categorized as crimes punishable by death, embezzlement of public funds, and crimes publishable by life in prison, such as:

  • Penal Code 187 PC – murder,
  • Penal Code 207/209 PC – kidnapping,
  • Penal Code 261 PC – rape.

Six-year limitation 

California Penal Code 800 PC says that if a crime is punishable with eight years or more in state prison, the statute of limitations is six years, such as:

  • Penal Code 211 PC – first-degree robbery,
  • Penal Code 451 PC – arson.

Three-year limitation 

California Penal Code 801 PC says that apart from those offenses that fall under the two prior statutes, the SOL for crimes punishable by three years, such as: 

One-year limitation 

California Penal Code 802(a) PC says, “as provided in subdivision (b), (c), (d), or (e),” if a crime is not punishable by death or imprisonment, the statute of limitations is one year, such as: 

  • 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 can be filed as a felony, the SOL is based on the maximum prison term the defendant can receive if filed as a felony.

Crimes and Their Statute of Limitations 

You can review some unique general categories in California, such as the following. 

  • Ten years for failing to register as a sex offender after a conviction, such as crimes related to producing child pornography,
  • Five years for an elder crime or abuse or any offense involving a dependent adult victim other than theft & embezzlement
  • Four years for conduct involving theft, fraud, embezzlement, breach of trust with an elder, or misconduct by a public official,
  • Three years for certain crimes committed against a minor under 14;
  • Two years for sexual-related crimes by a therapist or doctor toward a patient. 

What Crimes Have No Statute of Limitations? 

  • PC 261 rape involving force or violence;
  • PC 187 murder in the first degree;
  • Aggravated sexual assault of a child;
  • Embezzlement of public money.

When Does the SOL Clock Start Running? 

The Discovery Rule dictates when the time begins for the California statute of limitations, meaning the clock starts running when a crime is discovered rather than when it occurred. 

When Does the Statute of Limitations Clock Start Running?

Civil statute limitations can exceed criminal statutes. If the criminal SOL has passed, someone could still face a civil lawsuit, which is not filed by prosecutors but rather by a victim's family.  If you or a family member needs legal representation during any criminal investigation or court process stage, we can help you. 

If you were charged with an old offense, there might be statute limitations violations. Thus, a motion to dismiss a criminal case can be filed in court at any time but is typically heard by the judge as a demurrer motion at the arraignment.

If a criminal case were filed after the expiration of the SOL, a judge would dismiss the case. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California, but we serve clients across the state. You can contact us for a case consultation by phone or filling out the contact form.  

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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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