Under California criminal law, a statute of limitations (“SOL”) refers to the maximum time period for which a prosecutor can file criminal charges. The SOL in California for most misdemeanor cases is one year.
One of the main reasons the law puts limits on when a criminal case gets filed is to preserve a sense of fairness for the defendant.
The Statutory period for bringing a case begins when a criminal offense is discovered.
Further, while most crimes are governed by a statute of limitations, not all crimes have the same SOL.
What are the limitations for misdemeanors?
Most California misdemeanors have a SOL of one year. This means a prosecutor must file charges of a misdemeanor within one year of the offense. If no charges are brought during this one-year time period, a prosecutor loses the right to file them in the future.
There are exceptions, though, to the general one-year limitations rule. For example, the statute of limitations for misdemeanor violations committed against a minor under the age of 14 is three years. And, the SOL for sexual exploitation by a physician is two years.
Why have 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.
What is the Discovery Rule?
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 authorities do not learn of the crime until January 1, 2020, then they have until January 1, 2021 to bring misdemeanor charges.
Is there a statute of limitations for all crimes?
Not all crimes have a statute of limitations. Under California Penal Code 799 PC, 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.
Is the statute of limitations for all crimes one year?
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. As stated above, less sever charges involving misdemeanors have a SOL of one year (in general).
Please note that there are definitely exceptions to these rules. Consider, for example, California wobblers. These are crimes that a prosecutor can charge as either a California misdemeanor or a felony. The statute of limitations for these offenses will vary depending on how a prosecutor decides to charge them.