The statute of limitations is a standard feature of law procedurals, but it’s not always clear what the term actually means. In short, a statute of limitations is a law that prevents suspects from being charged with crimes years after they happened. However, there’s no single statute limiting legal action in California. There are many, each applying to specific crimes.
If you’ve been charged with a crime that occurred years ago, California’s statutes of limitations may be relevant to you. Here’s what you need to know about these important legal limits and what they may mean for your charges.
Understanding the Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations is a law that limits how when someone can take legal action against a person that’s allegedly harmed them. These limits exist in both civil and criminal cases. This means that a victim of a crime can only press charges against the alleged wrongdoer until the statutory period runs out. Afterward, they can’t take action against them.
These statutes aim to ensure that legal matters are handled in a timely fashion while still providing enough time for wronged parties to take action. As time passes, it is often harder to prosecute crimes as evidence is accidentally lost or destroyed, and witnesses forget essential details. Furthermore, alleged wrongdoers may change significantly as time passes, making the rehabilitory elements of legal penalties unnecessary. These statutes ensure that the crime is prosecuted before evidence degrades and while the charges and potential penalties are relevant to both the victim and the perpetrator.
However, crimes have varying levels of severity. Shoplifting is clearly not the same as robbery, which is not as bad as first-degree murder. As such, states like California have implemented a variety of statutes of limitations applying to different crimes. This ensures that an adult in their 30s can’t be prosecuted for shoplifting in their college years while allowing victims of serious crimes like rape or murder to seek justice years or even decades later.
When Does the Statute of Limitations Start?
The start date for a crime’s limitation period may vary. For most crimes, the period begins immediately upon the alleged commission of the offense. However, for some, the period is “tolled” or delayed. This is permitted for crimes that were not immediately discovered.
For example, many types of fraud have tolled statutes. Many people who commit fraud attempt to hide their tracks, which can mean it goes undiscovered for years. This is especially true of fraud by people in positions of power. To account for this, California legislation states the limit periods for these crimes begins once the violation is discovered.
Similarly, any statute may be tolled for up to three years if the suspect in the case is out of state. This means that leaving California is not a guaranteed way to “wait out” the statute of limitations.
Statutes of Limitations for Crimes in California
Statutes of limitations in California range from one year to life, depending on the allegations. If you’re facing criminal charges for a crime, you should check to ensure that those charges were filed within the limitation period for the alleged offense. Here’s what you need to know about the statutes of limitations for different California crimes.
Misdemeanors and Infractions
The standard statute of limitations for misdemeanors is one year from the date the crime occurred. Infractions are minor offenses that aren’t technically considered crimes, such as speeding or running a red light. Meanwhile, misdemeanors with one-year limits include any crime that may not be punished with state prison. Examples include shoplifting, petty theft, and public intoxication.
Most state felonies have a three-year period of limitations in California. These felonies include any crimes punishable by a state prison sentence, such as burglary and vandalism.
Some felonies that are punishable by eight or more years in prison may have their period of limitations raised to six years. These charges include first-degree robbery and aggravated arson. Unless the legislation regarding a felony offense states otherwise, these periods should hold true.
Exceptions to State Felony Limits
There are some exceptions to the three- and six-year limits. The following crimes are examples of
- Felony fraud: Purposefully defrauding a person or organization of more than $950 has an extended limitation period compared to other felonies. This type of fraud has a four-year limitation period, compared to three for similar felonies.
- Domestic violence: Physically abusing a spouse or “cohabitant” is a felony with a five-year limit, giving victims of abuse time to get away from their abuse and become safe before they press charges.
- Failing to report sexual assault as a mandated reporter: Mandatory reporters have a legal obligation to report the sexual assault within their institutions or against their charges. Failing to do so may be a felony and has a five-year limitation.
- Felony sex crimes: Any felony sex crimes that require sex offender registration and failing to register as a sex offender have a ten-year statute. Meanwhile, certain sex offenses against children allow the victim to press charges until their 40th birthday.
- Felonies punishable by life sentences: Any crime with a potential penalty of a life sentence or the death penalty does not have a limit on when charges may be filed. This includes murder, rape, and aggravated kidnapping. Charges can be pressed for these crimes as long as the suspect lives.
What Does the Statute of Limitations Mean for You?
If you have been charged with a crime after the statute of limitations has expired, the charges may be invalid, and the case could be dismissed. However, because of tolling, it isn’t always clear when these statute periods begin. That’s why it’s critical to consult with a criminal defense attorney as soon as you find out you may be charged with a crime. An expert defense attorney like M. Gabriela Guraiib can help you determine if the statute of limitations has expired and help you argue your case in court. Learn more about how Ms. Guraiib can advocate for your case to be dismissed by scheduling your meeting today.