Caliornia law provides statutes of limitations for various criminal charges, after which time prosecutions for those cases are barred. The California legislature has eliminated the statute of limitations on murder and other serious crimes that are punishable by life or the death penalty. When a statute of limitations period expires, a civil case can no longer be filed and a criminal case cannot be prosecuted. California provides various statutory periods that limit prosecution of many crimes, depending on the exact charge and the potential penalty it carries.
What Is a Statute of Limitations for Criminal Charges?
A statute of limitations is a law, generally written and codified, that establishes a term of years during which a case may be pursued in court. If that term of years has expired, no further legal proceedings may be brought on those facts. The court is said to have no jurisdiction to hear the case.
The purpose of the statute of limitations is to ensure that trials and criminal convictions are supported by reliable evidence that hasn't been tainted by the passage of time. Witnesses grow older and may lose detailed memories, and documentary evidence may go missing or be corrupted or damaged. Since criminal penalties can potentially result from such cases, the concern for proper legal process increases.
Statutes 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.
The statute of limitations for a felony in California depends on the precise criminal charge. California Penal Code Section 799 provides that the statute of limitations does not apply at all to certain very serious felonies. Consequently, district attorneys may prosecute these cases at any time after the commission of the crime – even decades after the event.
For California crimes subject to the death penalty, no limitation on prosecution applies. This means that first-degree murder with special circumstances can be prosecuted at any point in time. Special circumstances are key factors that aggravate the offense in the eyes of the law and can include:
- Murder for financial gain.
- A prior murder conviction.
- Causing death of multiple victims.
- Causing death via explosive devices.
Other Crimes Not Subject to a Statute of Limitations
Other crimes that are death-penalty eligible, and hence not subject to a statute of limitations, include treason and causing the death of another while intentionally interfering with the state’s ability to fight a war. Additionally, a second murder committed with a deadly weapon while a convicted killer is serving a life sentence subjects the killer to the death penalty, as does lying under oath for the purpose of seeing an innocent person executed. Both of these crimes can be prosecuted at any time.
Finally, charges of embezzlement of public funds under Penal Code Section 424 are not subject to a statute of limitations and so may be prosecuted at any point in time following the commission of the offense. The official charge is known as the "misappropriation of public funds" and is by nature similar to the theft offense of embezzlement. The crucial difference between the two is that a violation of Section 424 involves the unlawful use of public funds.
Read More: What Is California's Statute of Limitations for Crimes?
Application of Statutory Limitations to California Crimes
For any criminal charge that has not been excepted from the application of a statute of limitations period, prosecution may be time-barred if brought after the expiration of the relevant statutory period. The specific time period during which prosecutions may be pursued are found in California Penal Code Sections 800 through 802.
In general, the more serious the criminal charge, the longer the statutory period where cases may be pursued against offenders. Charges that amount to felonies are subject to statutory periods that are longer than those for misdemeanor crimes against property, for example.
Statutory Limitations for Felony Criminal Charges
For criminal charges that carry a potential penalty of eight or more years in prison, California Penal Code Section 800 provides a six-year statute of limitations. This does not include crimes punishable by a life sentence or the death penalty, as those are fully exempted from any statute of limitations. The time period begins to run upon the commission of the crime or the discovery of it if the crime is not immediately known.
Any other felony criminal charges must be prosecuted within three years of the commission or discovery of the offense. Charges that are subject to incarceration only in county jail, as opposed to the state prison system, must be brought within one year of the date of the commission of the offense under Penal Code Section 802.
Statutes of Limitations for Assault and Sexual Assault
Physical assault charges in California may be subject to any one of three statutes of limitations periods. If the assault is deemed a simple assault, it is generally charged as a misdemeanor and is subject to the one-year statutory period. More egregious or violent assaults – known as batteries – may be charged as felonies subject to either the three- or six-year period.
Most sexual assault criminal charges in California can be brought at any time and are thus exempt from the statute of limitations. A 2018 law, Assembly Bill 1619, expanded the statutory period for bringing civil cases based on sexual assault from two years to 10 years.
California Statutes of Limitations and the Rule of Discovery
A statute of limitations does not always begin the moment the crime is committed. In some cases, the discovery rule, which states that the statutory period starts to run upon the discovery of the crime, may apply. In other words, if a person commits involuntary manslaughter but conceals the body of the victim, the statutory period does not begin until the remains are discovered.
Tolling the Statute of Limitations
In certain circumstances, the law deems the statutory prosecution period to stop running for a length of time, after which it may resume. In those cases, the statute of limitations period is said to have tolled. This occurs where courts and lawmakers deem other public interests to outweigh the policies behind timely prosecution of criminal cases.
For example, victims of crimes who are minors may not be fully capable of reporting the crime at the time the offense was committed. In those cases, a statutory period may be deemed to have tolled until the person reaches the age of majority, when it begins to run.
Additionally, if a perpetrator of a crime committed in California attempts to evade justice by fleeing the state, the statute of limitations tolls for three years, or until the defendant returns to the state before the expiration of the three-year period. And where law enforcement officials collect DNA evidence in a criminal case, the defendant may be prosecuted at any time within one year of the date that the state lab identifies the defendant through that DNA, under California Penal Code Section 803(g).
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 799
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 800
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 801
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 803
- Shouse California Law Group: What Crimes in California Have No Statute of Limitations?
- Shouse California Law Group: Penal Code 424 PC - Misappropriation of Public Funds in California
- California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 802
- ABC10: New California law expands statute of limitations for sexual assault survivors
- Lawyers.com: California Criminal Statutes of Limitations
- Criminal Defense Lawyer: California Assault and Battery Laws
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.