List of criminal statutes of limitations in California

A statute of limitations defines the time frame within which legal proceedings must be initiated for a criminal offense. This concept serves to uphold the defendant’s rights while also motivating prosecutors to handle cases promptly. 

The length of the statute of limitations is determined by the severity of the crime’s maximum potential penalty. For instance, felonies, which carry more severe penalties than misdemeanors, have a longer statute of limitations. Certain grave offenses, like those warranting death or life imprisonment, are exempt from any statute of limitations, allowing charges to be filed irrespective of the time elapsed since the offense. 

If you have specific questions about how California’s statutes of limitations apply to your case, it’s best to speak directly with a skilled criminal defense attorney. Contact the Helfend Law Group today to discuss your case.

What is a statute of limitations?

A statute of limitations is the maximum amount of time that a party has to initiate legal proceedings in a criminal case. After the statute of limitations has passed, it is no longer possible for:

  • A judge to issue an arrest warrant or bench warrant 
  • The suspect to be arraigned on a felony complaint
  • The district attorney to file information or indictment
  • The district attorney to file misdemeanor charges

As we mentioned above, the length of a statute of limitations depends on the severity of the offense. 

What is the purpose of statutes of limitations?

Statutes of limitations exist to defend the rights of defendants and to motivate prosecutors to work quickly in investigating a case. The more time that passes between the date of an alleged crime and when it is prosecuted, the greater the likelihood that evidence will deteriorate or disappear and the memories of victims, witnesses, or other people involved will change or fade. 

There is also a greater likelihood that exonerating evidence that could be used by the defendant will disappear or degrade. 

The statute of limitations helps to ensure that the legal process is fair to the defendant. By limiting the window of time in which legal proceedings may take place, it doesn’t become unreasonably difficult for the accused to defend themselves due to loss of evidence.  

California’s discovery rule

In California, the time at which the clock starts running on the statute of limitations is dictated by the discovery rule

According to the rule, the window of time set by the statute of limitations begins when a crime is discovered, as opposed to beginning when the crime took place. For example, if a theft occurs on October 2nd but law enforcement is not made aware of it until October 15th, the clock on the statute of limitations will begin on October 15th and not at the earlier date of the alleged theft. 

Criminal statutes of limitations in California

Most information on statutes of limitations in the state of California can be found in California Penal Codes 799-802. Individual penal codes address statutes of limitations as they pertain to specific crimes. 

Statutes of limitations generally range from one year for many less serious misdemeanors to three to ten years for many felonies. Additionally, some violations of Business and Professions Codes have statutes of limitations that range from one to four years. 

The length of the statute of limitations for any crime is based on the maximum penalties associated with that crime. Crimes that are punishable by death or life imprisonment have no statute of limitations and may be charged or prosecuted at any time.  

Below is a bit more information on penal codes associated with one-year, three-year, six-year, and ten-year statutes of limitations and crimes with no limitation. 

One-year limitation

Under California Penal Code 802(a), misdemeanor offenses that aren’t punishable imprisonment in California state prison carry a statute of limitations of one year. Some examples include:

  • Petty theft – Penal Code 484 PC 
  • Trespassing – Penal Code 602 PC
  • Driving on a suspended license – Vehicle code 14601 VC
  • Driving under the influence – Vehicle Code 23152 VC 
  • Hit and run – Vehicle Code 20002 VC

Three-year limitation

Many crimes that are punishable by a prison sentence of fewer than eight years fall under California Penal Code 801 PC and carry a three-year statute of limitations. Examples include:

  • Burglary – Penal Code 459 PC 
  • Embezzlement – Penal Code 505 PC 
  • Assault with a deadly weapon – Penal Code 245 PC 
  • Criminal threats – Penal Code 422 PC 

Six-year limitation

Crimes that fall under Penal Code 799 PC are punishable by eight or more years imprisonment. For these offenses, a prosecutor will have six years to file charges. Examples of crimes with a six-year statute of limitations include:

  • Arson – Penal Code 451 PC 
  • Carjacking – Penal Code 215 PC 
  • First-degree robbery – Penal Code 211 PC 
  • Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – Penal Code 191.5(a) PC

Ten-year limitation

Most California sex crimes that require the offender to register under the California Sex Offender Registry have a ten-year statute of limitations, including:

  • Use of a minor in the production of child pornography – Penal Code 311.4(b) PC

For some sexual offenses involving a minor, the statute of limitation is the victim’s 40th birthday. If the statute of limitations has run out, a prosecutor may still bring charges against the defendant within one year of emerging DNA evidence or if the victim reports the crime and was a minor at the time the offense occurred.

No statute of limitations 

Crimes that have no statute of limitations, under California Penal Code 799 PC, generally fall into three categories:

  1. Offenses punishable by life in prison
  2. Offenses punishable by death
  3. Embezzlement of public funds

Examples include:

  • Murder – Penal Code 187 PC 
  • Rape – Penal Code 261 PC 
  • Kidnapping – Penal Code 207/209 PC 
  • Treason – Penal Code 37 PC

Statutes of limitations for ‘wobblers’

“Wobblers” are crimes that can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal history. 

For California wobbler crimes, the statute of limitations is based on the maximum possible penalties that a defendant could receive if the crime were to be charged as a felony. Therefore, a prosecutor would have three years to charge you with a wobbler offense, even if it is ultimately prosecuted as a misdemeanor. 

Frequently asked questions

Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about statutes of limitations. 

What if I get charged with a crime after the statute of limitations has passed?

It is important to seek the assistance of a criminal defense lawyer any time you are charged with a crime. If you are charged with a crime after the statute of limitations on that crime has passed, your attorney can file a motion to have the charges dismissed. This will usually take place during your arraignment in the form of a demurrer motion. 

Can the statute of limitations pause?

The statute of limitations can pause for up to three years if a suspect in a criminal case is out of state. This pause is also sometimes referred to as a “toll” or “suspension.”

California criminal defense attorney

If you’ve recently been accused of a past crime, it is possible that the statute of limitations has already passed. If the statute of limitations on your charges has been violated by the prosecutor, your attorney can file a motion to have your charges dropped on your behalf. A California criminal defense lawyer can examine the facts of your case and determine the best course of action to defend your rights and find you the most favorable outcome.

Criminal defense attorney Robert M. Helfend has been advising and representing clients in the Los Angeles area for over three decades. As one of Southern California’s top-rated attorneys, Mr. Helfend has successfully defended numerous clients against a wide range of charges. If you’re in need of legal representation or would like more information about California statutes of limitations, contact the Helfend Law Group today – 800-834-6434.

Published October 20, 2023.