Making Sense of the California Statute of Limitations in Criminal Cases


We are all familiar with the term “statute of limitations” but what does it actually mean. In criminal law, it refers to the time in which a person can be prosecuted for a particular crime according to the statute (law). Each state has devises its own statutorily defined time in which a person can be charged with a crime and the federal government has its own statute of limitations for federal crimes.

In California, crimes that can be punished by death or life in prison without the possibility of parole have no statute of limitations, nor do crimes for the embezzlement of public funds. In 2016, a new bill was signed into law that removes the statute of limitations on prosecutions for certain sex crimes, including rape and child molestation. Previous to this law, rape had a ten-year statute of limitations and sex crimes against children had to be prosecuted before the victim turned 40.

All other crimes have a specified number of years under the California statute in which the prosecutor can charge those crimes, but it’s complicated. Generally, misdemeanor crimes must be prosecuted within one year of the date of the crime while felonies must be prosecuted within three or six years depending on the applicable punishment for the crime. Those crimes that are punishable by imprisonment have a three-year statute of limitations, but if the crime is punishable by imprisonment for eight years or more, the statute of limitations bumps up to six years. There are many exceptions. For example, some crimes against a person over the age of 65 have a five-year statute of limitations and some white-collar crimes such as fraud and embezzlement have a four-year statute of limitations.

You may be wondering if a person can avoid prosecution by just hiding from the authorities until the statute of limitations passes or if a person is in the clear if the authorities don’t identify the culprit in time. In both cases the answer is: it depends.

Let’s say the authorities identified Mr. X as the perpetrator of a crime. A warrant is issued for his arrest but law enforcement can’t find him. As long as the warrant for Mr. X’s arrest is issued within the prescribed statute of limitation time limit, the statute is “tolled” until Mr. X is arrested. Tolling the statute of limitations simply means that the clock stops on the time period until Mr. X’s arrest. If Mr. X is evading his arrest, the toll is indefinite. If he is out of state, the toll is three years.

The statute of limitations begins to run upon the discovery of the crime. Some crimes, such as embezzlement, may not be discovered until long after the crime has occurred. If the authorities can’t identify who committed the crime before the statute of limitations runs out, the statute of limitations may expire. But there are exceptions. Those cases often called “cold cases” can be reopened many years later when law enforcement identifies the perpetrator by DNA evidence. When this occurs, the statute of limitations starts ticking once the alleged perpetrator is identified.

An experience criminal defense attorney knows that the very first question to ask when a crime is prosecuted is “Is this within the statute of limitations?” The prosecution doesn’t often miss the deadline but it happens. When a crime is charged beyond the statutory time deadline, it is an unlawful charge and must be dismissed by the court.

Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has been practicing criminal and juvenile defense in Orange County for almost 25 years. Contact him at his Irvine office at (949) 474-8008 or by email at for a free consultation regarding your criminal matter.