The statute of limitations (“SOL”) refers to the time period within which a prosecutor in California must file criminal charges. If charges get filed after the statute of limitations period expires, then depending on the crime, a person cannot be lawfully arrested or charged for that offense.
The SOL time-clock typically begins to run when an offense is discovered.
Crimes in California have different statutes of limitation periods. The SOL for an offense generally changes with the severity of the crime. For example:
- California misdemeanors typically have a statute of limitations of one year; and,
- California felonies (more severe offenses) generally have an SOL of three years.
Some criminal offenses though, like crimes punishable by death, are not subject to limitation periods. People accused, or guilty of these crimes, can be charged or arrested at any time. One example of these offenses is a crime that is punishable by death (for example, murder).
What is a Statute of Limitations?
Under California criminal law, an SOL refers to the maximum time period for which a prosecutor can file criminal charges. By law, an accused cannot get charged with a crime if the SOL for that crime has run, or expired.
The Discovery Rule is used to determine when the statutory period for bringing criminal charges begins. The rule says that the SOL clock begins to run when an offense is discovered.
So, for example, a person may commit a misdemeanor on January 1, 2019. If the statute of limitations for the offense is one year, then authorities have until January 1, 2020, to arrest a suspect or file criminal charges for that crime.
What is the statute of limitations for California crimes?
Crimes in California have different statute of limitation periods. The SOL for an offense typically changes with the severity of the crime. According to California Penal Code 800 PC, crimes that are punishable by imprisonment for eight years or more have a SOL of six years. Under California Penal Code 801 PC, felonies (or offenses punishable by imprisonment) have a statute of limitations of three years. Less severe charges involving misdemeanors have an SOL of one year (in general).
Is there a SOL for all crimes?
Not all crimes have a statute of limitations. Under California Penal Code 799 PC, arrests and charges of the following crimes can be brought against a person at any time:
- offenses punishable by death;
- offenses punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for life or for life without the possibility of parole; and,
- embezzlement of public money.
Why have a statute of limitations?
Statute of limitations exist to help ensure fairness for defendants. Evidence often gets lost or destroyed with the passage of time. Witnesses to crimes may also move after several years, or, they may no longer recall certain facts that took place. The result is that it would be unfair to pursue criminal charges against a person after a certain period of time has passed.