Expiration of the statute of limitations is a common defense of some criminal defendants. A statute of limitations is the time limit to sue the accused. In the criminal procedure process, this pertains to the period of time that the district attorney or prosecutor has to take legal action against a defendant. If the district attorney does not file the criminal cases within the applicable statute of limitations, charges against the defendant must be dismissed by the judge.
What is the Purpose of the Statutes of Limitations?
One main justification for a statute of limitations is the unfairness that a delayed trial may cause to the defendant.
The statute of limitations is set to make sure that defendants are also treated fairly. Evidence to prove the defendant’s innocence to a crime may get lost or destroyed over time. There may be instances that witnesses who may help prove that the defendant did not commit the crime may either be no longer around to testify or they may have already forgotten the facts critical to help the defendant. As such, it becomes unfair to prosecute a person for criminal charges after a certain period of time has lapsed.
California’s criminal statute of limitations sets limits for how long a prosecutor may wait to file formal criminal charges. In most California crimes, time limits start on the day that the crimes were committed. There are exceptions such as child molestation cases, wherein the district attorney must first be made aware of the crime.
California applies a varied period on the statutes of limitation. In some instances, the criminal case must be filed within six years after the crime was committed. In some felonies, the deadline for filing a lawsuit is within three years after the crime was committed. On the other hand, most misdemeanor crimes must be filed within one year after the crime was committed.
As in other states, some crimes have no statute of limitations, meaning there is no time limit as to when the aggrieved party can file charges. A lawsuit can be filed at any time after the crime was committed. These are:
- Offenses punishable by death such as felony-murder
- Crimes punishable by life imprisonment in the state prison or incarceration without the possibility of parole (e.g., murder); and,
- Embezzlement of public funds
Other time tables are as follows:
- Offenses punishable by imprisonment for eight years or more (some exceptions apply): 6 years
- Other offenses punishable by imprisonment (some exceptions): 3 years
- Crimes committed against elders and dependent adults (except for theft or embezzlement): 5 years from the date of the offense
- Offenses involving the production of pornographic material with minors: 10 years
- Failure to register as a sex offender: 10 years
- Misdemeanors: 1 year after the date of the offense
- Crimes against children specifically misdemeanors committed upon a minor under the age of 14: 3 years from the date of the offense
- Sexual offense by physician or therapist with the patient: 2 years
There is also a 4-year statute of limitations from discovery or date of the offense for the following:
- If the offense is punishable by imprisonment and involves fraud or breach of fiduciary duty
- Theft or embezzlement if the victim is an elder or dependent adult
- Misconduct in office by a public officer, employee, or appointee involving certain specified acts
What is “Tolling”?
“Tolling” or temporarily stopping the statutory limitations is possible in some cases. When a case is “tolled”, this means that the days do not count toward the final limit amount. The statute of limitations is tolled in the following circumstances:
- If the defendant is out of the state, up to a maximum of three years
- If the defendant has a pending case in the state for the same crime.
- Until the discovery of offense in cases involving procuring or offering a false or forged instrument for record in any public office or using someone else’s personal identifying information for any unlawful purpose
- Until evidence is disclosed to the prosecution.
Are there exceptions to the rule on the statute of limitations?:
- Certain felony sex crimes against victims under 18 may be commenced any time prior to the victim’s 28th birthday, or within 10 years after commission of the offense under certain conditions.
- For child sexual abuse or sexual crime against a victim younger than 18 where the statute of limitations has run, the case can be commenced within 1 year of the date a report is filed with a state law enforcement agency, provided there is admissible, independent corroborating evidence
- Sex crimes committed such as rape and sexual assault may be filed within one year of the date DNA evidence such as DNA match is used to establish the identity of the suspect
- Certain misdemeanors relating to contractor and licensing violations under the Business and Professions Code have specified statutes of limitations ranging from one year to four years
Exceptions also apply if the crime can be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor. In which case, the limitations period for these offenses will vary depending on the underlying offense under which the defendant will be prosecuted.
What is California’s Discovery Rule?
It is important to note that in certain offenses, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the offense has been, or could reasonably have been discovered. The Discovery Rule is used to determine when the statutory period for bringing criminal charges begins. The rule says that the SOL clock starts ticking as soon as an offense is discovered. As such, if a person committed a misdemeanor on March 6, 2019, but law enforcement did not know of the crime until February 22, 2021, they may file a lawsuit only until February 22, 2022.
Looking for legal assistance from a criminal defense lawyer in California?
If you’ve been charged with a crime, it’s always a smart move to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as you can so that you know what your options are. A criminal lawyer can help build your defense especially if you have a chance to have your case dismissed if the statute of limitations has expired. Call Marc Grossman for a free initial consultation.