Both state and federal laws contain statutes of limitation that limit the amount of time during which certain civil and criminal cases may be brought. When a statute of limitations period expires, a civil case can no longer be filed and a criminal case cannot be prosecuted. California provides two statutory periods that limit prosecution of some crimes, while the most serious crimes are excluded from these provisions and can be prosecuted at any time.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations is a legal provision that sets a time frame during which legal proceedings may be brought on a specific issue or in a case. After that time frame has expired, the statute of limitations is said to have run or expired, and no further civil lawsuit proceedings or a criminal prosecution may be pursued for that case.
When the statute of limitations expires, the court loses jurisdiction over that case. The expiration of the statute may seem like a mere formality or legal technicality. In reality, though, it affects the very core of the court’s power to hear the case in the first place.
A statute of limitations in the U.S. is generally codified into law after passage and enactment by a legislative body. For example, statutes of limitation for federal crimes are enacted by Congress and codified in the U.S. Code of Laws. Likewise, a state legislature enacts statutes of limitation for criminal acts under its purview.
Purpose of Statute of Limitations
The enactment of statute of limitations by state legislative bodies is designed to prevent trials, convictions and possibly stiff penalties imposed on the basis of stale or unreliable evidence. This rationale holds true whether the case in question is civil or criminal in nature. However, in criminal cases, the public policy behind such statutes tends to be more immediate and to carry greater potential consequences.
Statutes of limitation are designed to protect criminal defendants from having to litigate old claims and allegations for which evidence supporting their position may have been lost or destroyed over time. Evidence can go missing or be destroyed or damaged over a lengthy period of time.
Additionally, if witnesses die or become incapacitated years after the events in question, they can no longer testify reliably. By encouraging cases to be brought promptly, the statute of limitations helps ensure that vital testimony from key witnesses is preserved.
Statute of Limitations on Murders and Other Serious Crimes
As a general rule, the most serious crimes, such as those involving intentional homicide or those felonies punishable by the most severe penalties, are often excluded from the time limits imposed by statutes of limitations. These exclusions are based in part on the premise that certain crimes are so unacceptable to society that their prosecution overrides any public interest in the timely prosecution of claims. Consequently, California Penal Code Section 799 states that some crimes are not subject to any statute of limitations. As a result, California prosecutors can bring certain criminal charges against defendants at any time.
California crimes punishable by death include first-degree murder with special circumstances. These crimes involve situations where a specific aggravating circumstance or fact is found, including:
- Financial gain.
- Defendant’s prior criminal history includes a murder conviction.
- Multiple victims.
- Death caused by bombs or explosive devices.
- Death caused during the evasion of law enforcement or to evade capture.
- Victim is an on-duty law enforcement officer or firefighter.
- Victim is a prosecutor, judge, juror or elected official and defendant was motivated by retaliation or revenge.
- Death caused to silence a testifying witness.
- Death motivated by hate or bias on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender or religion.
- Death occurred during the commission of another felony, such as a carjacking in which the driver of the car was killed.
- Criminal gang activity.
Only a few other specified crimes in California are eligible for the death penalty, such as treason or causing a death while deliberately interfering with the state’s readiness to engage in war. If a defendant is already serving a life sentence and kills another person with a deadly weapon, that defendant is subject to capital punishment. Finally, committing perjury in a deliberate effort to get an innocent person executed for a crime they didn’t commit qualifies a defendant for the death penalty.
Crimes that are excluded from the statute of limitations in California include any crimes that are punishable by death or by state imprisonment for a term of life, or life without the possibility of parole. Additionally, the crime of embezzlement of public funds is included in this list of exceptions. These crimes may be charged and prosecuted at any time after the defendant commits that crime or after law enforcement discovers the crime.
In addition, most cases of sexual assault are also excepted from the criminal statute of limitations in California. However, this exception applies only to crimes that were committed after January 1, 2017. If the crime was committed before that date, but the statute of limitations period in effect at the time of the offense hasn’t yet run, that case can also be brought at any time.
Read More: California's Statute of Limitations: Federal Crimes
California Statute of Limitations
For all criminal offenses that are not specifically excluded by Penal Code Section 799, a statute of limitations will apply. In other words, prosecutors may only pursue cases for all other crimes within a specific period of time.
Two sections of the California Penal Code govern the statute of limitations for these crimes: PC 800 and PC 801. As a general rule, as the severity of the criminal charge increases, so does the applicable statute of limitations period. Felony charges, for example, are assigned statutory periods for prosecution that exceed the period for misdemeanor property crimes. By the same token, the statute of limitations on theft will exceed the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor assault.
California Penal Code Section 800 sets out the statute of limitations for crimes with penalties of state imprisonment for eight years or more, except for those crimes punishable by life, life without parole or death, which have no limit on prosecution. Criminal charges for these felonies must be brought within six years of the commission of that offense or the discovery of the crime.
All remaining offenses – those that do not fall within PC 799 or PC 800 – are subject to a three-year statute of limitations.
California Statutes of Limitations and the Rule of Discovery
The period specified in the statute of limitations for a particular crime may not start running as soon as the crime is committed. In many cases, the so-called discovery rule applies. This rule states that the time period for prosecution of a case does not begin to run until the offense is discovered.
For example, if a person commits the offense of involuntary manslaughter, but hides the victim’s body, the statute of limitations will not begin to run until the body is discovered. If law enforcement officers uncover the body one year later, the net effect is that charges can be brought, and the defendant prosecuted, at any time within seven years following the offense – the year in which the body remained hidden, plus the six-year statute of limitations period.
Tolling the Statute of Limitations
When the law specifies situations in which the statute of limitations stops for some period of time before it starts back up again, the statutory period is said to “toll.” Tolling takes place in certain situations during which other public interests may outweigh the policy supporting prompt prosecution.
One situation in which tolling takes place is where the victim of the crime is a minor at the time of the offense and so may not be capable of reporting it. In those circumstances, the statute is said to be tolled until the child reaches the age of 21. At that point, the statutory period for that crime begins to run.
Tolling also takes place when a criminal defendant flees the state of California. In such a case, the statute of limitations for that crime tolls for three years, before starting up again.
Finally, if DNA evidence is gathered in a sexual assault or another type of criminal case, prosecutors may bring charges within one year of the identification of the defendant through that DNA evidence, according to California Penal Code Section 803(g).
In California, the statute of limitations for crimes depends on the crime committed. Crimes considered to be the most serious however, such as first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances, have no statute of limitations.
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 799
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 261
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 800
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 801
- Shouse California Law Group: What Crimes in California Have No Statute of Limitations?
- Criminal Defense Lawyer: California Felonies and Misdemeanors
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 803
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.