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California Criminal Statute of Limitations Laws

California's criminal statute of limitations sets limits for how long a prosecutor may wait to file formal criminal charges. As in other states, there is no time limit to bring charges for crimes such as murder or embezzlement of public funds. But lesser felonies have a 3-year statute of limitations, while misdemeanors are two to three years.

The following chart provides the basics of California criminal statute of limitations law, and a more in-depth summary follows. See Details on State Criminal Statute of Limitations for more general information.

Code Section Pen. §§799 et seq.
Felonies Murder, other offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment, embezzlement of public funds: none; offenses punishable by 8 or more years in prison: 6 yrs.; offenses punishable by imprisonment: 3 yrs.
Misdemeanors 1 yr.; misdemeanor violation committed on a minor under 14: 3 yrs.; sexual exploitation by physician or therapist: 2 yrs.
Acts During Which Statute Does Not Run Not in state, max. extension 3 yrs.; statutory periods do not begin until offense is or should have been discovered

Statute of Limitations Basics

A statute of limitations is a time limitation for bringing a lawsuit. This limitation is often different for different types of lawsuits. The time limitation for a lawsuit for a breach of a contract may be different than the time limitation for a lawsuit based on a car crash. This changes for criminal cases as well. Minor crimes may have a shorter statute of limitations than major crimes, which may have no limitation at all.

Justifications for Statutes of Limitations

One main justification for a statute of limitations is the unfairness that a delayed trial may cause to the defendant. For example, let's say you sold a house twenty years ago. Now, the person you sold it to is having trouble reselling the house because there are problems with the way the house and land are described in the deed. They want to sue you because of these problems. However, because the sale happened so long ago, you may not have any more records of the sale, records that would show that you adhered to all of the requirements sellers must fulfill when selling the house. Because you don't have those records anymore, given the long time since the sale, a lawsuit would be extremely unfair.

For criminal law cases, the delay in prosecution can be especially prejudicial. In the time since the alleged crime and the prosecution, you may have lost evidence that would prove you did not commit the crime. Although the prosecution still must prove you committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, simple items like receipts, photos, or phone records may prove your innocence, and can be lost with time.

California's Statute of Limitations for Criminal Charges

California places limits on the amount of time the government can take before prosecuting a crime. For murder, offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment, or embezzling public funds, there is no statute of limitations. This is because of the serious nature of those crimes. For offenses punishable by eight or more years in prison, the government must bring its case within three years. For other offenses punishable by imprisonment, the government has three years to bring its case. The government has one year to bring a case for a misdemeanor, or three years if it is committed against a minor.

It is important to note that the statutory period for bringing a case does not begin until the offense is discovered, or should have been discovered. As well, statutes of limitations change from state to state, and what is true for California may not be true for another state.

Every good criminal defense attorney will be well versed in statute of limitations issues. If you would like to discuss your case with a private defense attorney, there are many throughout California who may be able to help.

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