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.

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 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 Discovery Rule

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.

The following chart provides the basics of California criminal statute of limitations law, and a more in-depth summary follows.

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

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

California Codes and Legal Research Options

Additional Resources

If you have additional questions about California’s criminal statute of limitations, click on the following links:

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