In the criminal justice system, statutes of limitations set the amount of time the government has to prosecute people. If the government doesn’t file charges within the designated time period, the defendant can hold up the statute of limitations as a complete defense.
(This article is about statutes of limitations in California criminal cases. For information about civil cases, see our article on civil statutes of limitations in California.)
Criminal statutes of limitations are designed to protect would-be defendants. Among the rationales are that it’s harder to defend oneself when a lot of time has passed and that it’s not fair to punish someone for behavior that happened a long time ago.
Limitation periods are usually longer for felonies than for misdemeanors. In many states, some crimes—most notably, murder—don’t have statutes of limitations. In other words, the government can charge someone with the offense no matter how long ago it allegedly happened.
The limitations period typically starts to “run” the moment the alleged crime is complete. So, if the period for criminal assault is three years, the prosecution would have three years from the date the defendant attacked the victim.
Determining the starting point for the limitations period can be trickier for crimes that span days, weeks, or longer. But the same general rule tends to apply—that is, that the clock starts ticking once the crime has actually ended. Courts have held, for example, that a conspiracy ends for statute-of-limitations purposes at the point that the last “overt act” was committed.
The passing of a statute of limitations generally means that the potential defendant is in the clear. But some events “toll”—or pause—statutes of limitations, giving the prosecution more time. For example, if the statute of limitations for a crime is five years and the suspect goes into hiding for a year—during which the statute is tolled—the prosecution may well have six years from the date of the crime to prosecute.
Statutes of limitations can get knotty. Sometimes there’s a general limitations period for a set of crimes (misdemeanors, for example), but a more specific period for a crime within that set. Or the statute of limitations could expire for one crime but leave the defendant open to prosecution for another—or for prosecution in an entirely different jurisdiction. Not only that, but other timing issues can come into play in criminal cases—for instance, the right to a speedy trial.
Make sure to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney if you want to know about any timing issues that apply to your situation, including how to raise the statute-of-limitations defense.
Statutes of Limitations in California
Below you’ll find statutes of limitations for several crimes in California. You can see the statutes to learn more. (Be aware that statutes change, and that court rulings determine the way statutes are interpreted; court rulings can even make statutes or parts of them unenforceable.)
Keep in mind that the following is a partial list with broad overviews. You should look at the actual law for nuances and exceptions, like the limitations period being longer when the victim is a minor or the starting point for the statute of limitations being the moment when the police discovered or should have discovered the crime. And remember that a knowledgeable lawyer can explain the precise rules, along with the way they apply to you.