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Statute of Limitations (Criminal Law)

The term Statute of Limitations refers to a law, or set of laws, that sets a time limit for a person or an entity, such as the office of the District Attorney, to file a legal matter, including a criminal case, against another person or entity. If the legal matter is not filed within the time limit, then the person or entity may not file a legal claim, including a criminal charge.

There are statutes (laws) that set time limits for both civil and criminal cases, as well as statutes that set time limits for both state and federal cases. This page discusses common statutes of limitations as they apply to criminal cases in California.


Note: A request to dismiss a criminal case due to a violation of the California statute of limitations in criminal cases may be brought at any time, even after the commencement of criminal proceeding against a defendant.

First of all, for most California crimes, the time limit (limitations) starts on the day the crime was alleged to have been committed. In some unusual cases involving fraud and child molestation the time starts to run when the district attorney knows, or should have known, that a criminal act was committed. Keep in mind that when law enforcement learns of a criminal act it is presumed that the district attorney has also learned of the criminal act.

The most common California statutes of limitations on crimes are as follows:

Penal Code 799: NO STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS on Offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and cases of embezzlement of public money. This means that the District Attorney may file criminal charges against the defendant at any time. These cases include murder and kidnapping for ransom, along with many other very serious charges.

Penal Code 800: SIX YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS on cases where the punishment for the crime is up to eight years in prison. This category of crime includes rape, torture, manslaughter, 1st degree robbery, many sex offense against adults, arson, use of weapons for mass destruction, large quantities of drugs for sale, and major firearms crimes such as use of a firearm by a gang member to terrorize victim.

Penal Code 801: THREE YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS on cases where the punishment for the crime is less than eight years. This classification of crimes include most felonies with the exception noted in Penal Codes 799 and 800 (see above). There are too many crimes that fall into this category to list all of them here.

Penal Code 802: ONE YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATION FOR MISDEMEANORS. For almost all misdemeanor crimes in California (except PC 647.6, or former 647a, and a few less common misdemeanors) the proscribed statute of limitations is one year from the date of the commission of the offense. There are too many misdemeanor crimes to list all of them here but common misdemeanors include DUI, petty theft, possession of drug charges, drunk in public, hit and run, and more.

Penal Code 647.6 Crimes: As noted above, the statute of limitations for the misdemeanor crime of annoy or molest a minor (PC647.6(a)(1)-M, and PC647.6(b)-M) is three years by exceptional statute.

Note: When a criminal charge may be filed either as a misdemeanor or as a felony the statute of limitations that applies is the one that is associated with the felony charge. These crimes are known as "wobblers" in California.


Penal Code 803(f)(1): Allows a criminal complaint to filed against a defendant within one year of the date of a report to a California law enforcement agency by a person of any age alleging that he or she, while under the age of 18 years, was the victim of sexual molestation.


Note: the sexual molestation must have amounted to substantial sexual contact and if the victim is over the age of 21 at the time of the reporting, then the allegation must be corroborated with evidence other than just the statement of the victim).

Penal Code 801.1: STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR CHILD MOLESTATION CRIMES: If a person is under the age of 18 and alleges sexual molestation by the defendant then district attorney has until the alleged victim turns 28 years old to file the criminal charges against the defendant.


Note: There is obvious confusion between two last paragraphs with respect to what is the statute of limitations on sex offenses against children. When you read the two statutes together it means this: If a person reports to law enforcement that they have been sexually molested as a child by the defendant then the district attorney must file the criminal charges against the defendant before the victim turns 28 years of age; however, if the alleged victim does not report the alleged molestation until after the alleged victim turns 28 years of age then PC 803 gives the district attorney an extra year to file charges against the defendant no matter at what age the alleged victim reported the alleged child molestation.



Penal Code 801.2, 801.5, and 801.6 sets out special statues of limitations for crimes that involve child pornography (PC 801.2 [ten-year statute of limitations]), Fraud (PC 801.5 [four year statute of limitations]), and Elder Abuse (PC 801.6 [six-year statute of limitations]).

New PC 273.5(a)-F Statute of Limitations: A new statute of limitations for domestic violence was created in 2020. Now, the statute of limitations for the crime of inflict corporal injury to spouse or cohabitant (PC273.5(a)-F) is five years. previously, the statute of limitations for inflict corporal injury to spouse was three years.


TOLLING THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS:  The term "tolling" means to stop the time period of the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations "tolls" under several circumstances. Those circumstances include 1) the filing of a criminal complaint (assuming the limitations period has not already expired), 2) when the defendant flees the state of California (the time starts to run again when the defendant returns to California), and 3) when the victim is under the age of 18 or is otherwise incapacitated from reporting the alleged offense against the defendant and the incapacitation of the victim was caused by the defendant.

Often times the issues that surround a cases where a statute of limitations defense may be applicable concern the reporting element. In other words, the argument in court becomes 'when did law enforcement and the district attorney learn of the criminal offense?' Certainly, a report to a police officer would constitute law enforcement, but what about rape crisis counselor, a principal at a school, a doctor, etc (persons who have a duty to report child abuse). The law in this area can be very complicated but never-the-less must be explored as part of any defense to a criminal charge.

OTHER TIME LIMITATIONS DEFENSES TO CALIFORNIA CRIMES: Finally, even if the district attorney has filed a criminal charge within the applicable statute of limitations there may still be a procedural defense open to the defendant that may bar prosecution of the crime. For example, when the district attorney has filed a misdemeanor or a felony criminal charge but then the district attorney sits on the case without actually prosecuting it (usually because the defendant has not shown up to court and there is a warrant against the defendant) the defendant may be entitled to have a case dismissed because it may be prejudicial to prosecute the defendant after a long period of time. This happens when a long period of time has elapsed since the filing of the complaint and the actual pursuit of prosecution.

To learn more about a statute of limitations defense contact our criminal defense attorneys today for a free consultation. Our attorneys will patiently review your case and discuss with you your rights and your defense options. Call today!


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