Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations prevents prosecutors from pursuing criminal charges against someone for a crime committed prior to a specified time limit, usually a fixed number of years. The purpose of the statute of limitations is to encourage the prompt investigation and commencement of criminal proceedings. Without it, the public would have fewer protections against bureaucratic delays in investigating and punishing crimes.

The statute of limitations provides a measure of predictability by providing specific time limits beyond which a defendant’s right to a fair trial is considered to have been prejudiced. For example, without the statute of limitations, a defendant might be unfairly impacted by evidence becoming lost or contaminated, witnesses becoming unavailable, or memories fading with the passage of time.

If you have a case in which the statute of limitations is a potential issue, it is important to speak with a competent criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can assist you in evaluating the relevant timelines, which can often be confusing without previous experience determining how long the prosecution has to file allegations under specific circumstances.

Ventura, CA Lawyer for Criminal Statute of Limitations Issues

Jay Leiderman Law has many years of experience with every facet and detail of criminal proceedings in California, including technical, time-bound questions involving the application of the statute of limitations to different crimes. No aspect of the criminal process will be foreign to Jay Leiderman, and in fact, he is certified specifically in Criminal Law through the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization.

Jay Leiderman Law can use its extensive knowledge of criminal procedure to ensure that many potential avenues for dismissal of your case, including those involving the statute of limitations, are explored thoroughly and utilized to your benefit to the maximum extent possible under the law. The statute of limitations is proof that timing is important in a criminal case, so don’t hesitate – call Jay Leiderman Law at (805) 654-0200 today to schedule a free initial strategy session.

Overview of Statute of Limitations Law in California

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The Statute of Limitations and Motions to Dismiss

For the purposes of criminal defense, the main reason the statute of limitations is important is because the defense may be able to have charges thrown out completely if the statute has been violated. If the prosecution waits too long to pursue their criminal case against you and thus exceeds the specified time in the statute, then you can file a motion to dismiss the charges.

If the district attorney’s office does not want to drop the case, the prosecutor can challenge the defendant’s motion by filing a “demurrer” stating their objection to dismissal. Should the defense successfully show that a statute of limitations violation has occurred and the motion to dismiss is granted, the prosecution will be barred from continuing with the case despite their objections.

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When the Statute of Limitations Begins

In criminal cases, California’s statute of limitations requires “commencement” of a prosecution within a certain period of time after the alleged commission of a crime. As explained by Pen. Code §804, a prosecution is commenced by:

  • filing an indictment or information;
  • filing a complaint;
  • certifying a case to superior court; or
  • issuing an arrest or bench warrant.

As explained in Pen. Code §803.6(a), if more than one time period described in the statute of limitations scheme applies, the time for commencing an action is governed by that period that expires the latest in time.

In most cases, the time limit for the statute of limitations in a criminal case begins on the day the crime was allegedly committed. For continuing offenses, the statute of limitations period does not commence until the entire course of conduct is complete.

In some types cases, the statute of limitations might not start to run until the discovery of the offense, and in these cases prosecution must be commenced within four years after discovery of the crime or within four years after completion, whichever is later. These crimes include some white-collar offenses like:

  • fraud
  • breach of a fiduciary duty
  • embezzlement of funds from an elder or dependent adult, or
  • misconduct by a public official

(Pen. Code §801.5 & §803(c))

In some types of child molestation cases, the statute of limitations might not begin to run until the district attorney or law enforcement knows, or should have known, that a criminal act was committed.

Notwithstanding any other time limitations, special rules apply for:

  • specified sex crimes that are alleged to have been committed when the victim was under the age of 18; prosecution may be commenced any time prior to the victim’s 40th birthday as provided in Pen. Code §801.1(a);
  • a felony offense requiring sex offender registration must be commenced within 10 years after commission of the offense as required by Pen. Code, §801.1(b);
  • a criminal complaint for specified sex crimes may be filed within one year of the date on which the identity of the suspect is conclusively established by DNA testing if specified conditions are met, as provided in Pen. Code, §803(g)(1).

Most misdemeanors have a one-year statute of limitations. Other crimes might have a three- or six-year statute of limitations. Many of the most serious felonies in California, such as murder, have no statute of limitations at all.

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Crimes with No Statute of Limitations

Pursuant to Pen. Code, §799(a), there is no statute of limitations for:

  • crimes punishable by death; or
  • by imprisonment in the state prison for life; or
  • by life without the possibility of parole; or
  • for crimes involving the embezzlement of public money

Pursuant to Pen. Code, §799(b)(1), there is also no statute of limitations for:

  • specified sex crimes if the crime was committed on or after January 1, 2017; or
  • if the crime was committed before that date but the statute of limitations had not expired on January 1, 2017.

In all of the above cases, the prosecutor with the District Attorney’s office is permitted to file criminal charges against the defendant at any time.

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Crimes with a Six-Year Statute of Limitations

Prosecution for crimes punishable by imprisonment for eight years or more must be commenced within six years after commission of the offense, as provided in Penal Code §800. These include:

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Crimes with a Three-Year Statute of Limitations

Under Penal Code 801, California law imposes a three-year statute of limitations on crimes punishable by less than eight years in prison, including most felonies not listed in Penal Codes §799 or §800.

In other words, prosecution for other felonies punishable by less than eight years must be commenced within three years after commission of the offense as required by Pen. Code §801.

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Crimes with a One-Year Statute of Limitations

Under Pen. Code, §802(a), California imposes a one-year statute of limitations for nearly all misdemeanors in California except PC 647.6, or former 647a, and a few less-common misdemeanors.

When a criminal charge can be filed as either a misdemeanor or a felony, then the statute of limitations depends on whether the crime was filed as a misdemeanor or as a felony. Crimes that can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor are known as “wobblers.”

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Rules for the Statute of Limitations in California

As explained by the United States Supreme Court in Stogner v. California (2003) 539 U.S. 607, the Court recognized the basis for the statutes of limitations:

“Significantly, a statute of limitations reflects a legislative judgment that, after a certain time, no quantum of evidence is sufficient to convict. And that judgment typically rests, in large part, upon evidentiary concerns – for example, concern that the passage of time has eroded memories or made witnesses or other evidence unavailable.” Id. at p. 615.

The amount of time available to the prosecutor to charge the crime varies on the criminal charge alleged. Generally, the length of the limitation relates to the seriousness of the offense.

The failure of a prosecution to be commenced within the applicable period of limitation is a complete and absolute defense to the charge. Because the statute of limitations is jurisdictional, it may be raised as a defense at any time, before or after judgment.

The circumstances in which the statute of limitations can be waived are extremely limited.

When the issue is raised by the defense, the prosecution bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a charged offense was committed within the applicable period of limitations. When making a ruling on the issue, the court is required to construe the application of the statute of limitations strictly in favor of the defendants.

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Additional Resources

California Penal Code, Part 2, Title 3, Chapter 2, Time of Commencing Criminal Actions [§799-§805] – Here is the chapter of the California Penal Code that contains the official text of the criminal statutes of limitations referenced throughout this article. You can examine the text to figure out the timing requirements for any crime.

“Criminal Statutes of Limitations California”, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network – A helpful chart summarizing the statute of limitations provisions for many different kinds of sex crimes in California. The information is helpful because sex crimes in particular sometimes have unique exceptions to the normal time requirements.

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Ventura County Statute of Limitations Attorney

Jay Leiderman Law represents clients across Ventura County – including in Ventura, Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Ojai, Moorpark, Port Hueneme, Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Camarillo – and can help determine the statute of limitations issues that may be present in your unique case. Jay Leiderman Law is experienced with filing and litigating motions to dismiss charges based on violations of the statute of limitations, as well as with many other defenses that have the potential to result in an outright dismissal of your charges based on technicalities.

If the prosecution has already waited too long to try to convict you, why waste any more time letting the case drag out? Let Jay Leiderman help you identify possible weaknesses in the prosecution’s timing or other technical errors that could prevent the case against from moving any further. Call Jay Leiderman Law at (805) 654-0200 today for a free consultation to explore your options.

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