While most people have heard of a “statute of limitations,” few people have a very firm grasp on what the term actually means, particularly when it comes to California’s criminal laws. To help you get a better understanding of the concept, here’s a guide by La Jolla criminal lawyer Peter M. Liss.
What is a Statute of Limitations?
Put simply, the statute of limitations on a crime is how long police have to collect enough evidence before the District Attorney can no longer file charges. This ensures that someone can’t be charged with a minor crime years after the fact. For example, if a senior citizen gives a speech about how he shoplifted as a teenager, the statute of limitations are what prevents the police from being able to arrest him for the crime. It is important to note that many serious offenses, such as rape and murder do not have any statute of limitations, so you could be charged with these crimes at any time. That’s why you should still speak with a Del Mar defense attorney before confessing to any crimes, even if you feel like they happened a lifetime ago.
When Do the Statute of Limitations Start?
Usually the statute of limitations starts when the crime occurs, but there is an exception known as “discovery” that can make some statutes start running later. Discovery means that the crime wasn’t discovered until later on, at which point the statute of limitations will begin.
For example, if the owner of an art gallery brought in a painting to have it cleaned only to find out that the painting was a forgery by the person who sold it to them ten years ago, the statute of limitations would begin when they discovered the painting was a forgery.
The statute of limitations may also start a little later if the defendant was legally insane when the crime occurred. If this is the case, the statute can be put on hold until he is considered mentally competent once again. On the other hand, if the defendant became mentally incompetent after the crime took place, the trial may be put on hold later on, but the statute of limitations will not be and the District Attorney must still file charges according to the original statute of limitations.
Sometimes the date of discovery can make for a point of debate and a Mira Mesa criminal lawyer may be able to argue that the charges were filed too late. Even if they were filed on time it can sometimes be argued that the amount of time that elapsed has made it so the defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated.
What are the Statute of Limitations on Crimes in CA?
California has a number of crimes subject to their own statute of limitations, but generally a misdemeanor will have a one year statute of limitations and a felony will have a three year statute of limitations unless the crime is punishable by eight years or more, in which case it will extend to six years.
If the victim was an elder or dependent adult, the statute is five years for most crimes. In most misdemeanors where the victim is under 14, there is a three year limit to file charges.
Aside from murder and rape, there are no statute of limitations for crimes that are punishable by death or life imprisonment or for the the embezzlement of public funds. The statute of limitations is ten years for those who fail to register as a sex offender. In sex offenses against minors, the period to file charges generally lasts ten years after the date the minor turns 18.
Changes to the Statute of Limitations
California changed its law for rape and other sex offense prosecutions in 2016 as a result of the Bill Cosby case. It is important to note it applies only to new cases and those where the statute hadn’t expired. As a result, anyone arrested for an old sex offense should contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately to see if the statute of limitations has expired.
If you have any questions about the statute of limitations for a particular crime or if you believe the police arrested you for a crime after the statute of limitations have run out, Solana Beach defense attorney Peter M. Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free initial consultation.
Creative Commons Image by Dafne Cholet