The California criminal justice system is tasked with prosecuting crimes and protecting California's citizens. You may think that this system has the power to prosecute and convict criminals at any point. In reality, criminal cases, as well as civil, have what is called a statute of limitations. The statute of limitations essentially limits the amount of time that can go by before legal action against the defendant, i.e. filing a lawsuit, is taken. In criminal cases, this limits the amount of time the prosecutor has to file charges against someone either after the crime has been committed, or, in some cases, after the prosecutor has become aware of the commission of the crime. Charges must be filed before the statute of limitations runs. After it runs, the criminal case cannot be filed and the defendant cannot be convicted. The idea behind the statute of limitations is to reduce the burden on the defendant, who may lose the ability to defend himself or herself as time passes. For example, a defendant may have a hard time gathering statements from witnesses who can attest to his or her innocence years after the alleged crime took place. By putting in place a statute of limitations for certain criminal charges, the criminal justice system is held to be responsive in light of criminal evidence and to not let a pending case linger for long before it is prosecuted.
While a time limit for prosecution may seem in favor of the defendant, it is important to keep in mind that the statute of limitations will vary significantly from crime to crime. More minor crimes may have a relatively short statute of limitations while some major crimes have no statute of limitations at all, meaning the prosecutor can file charges at any point. For all offenses punishable by the death penalty or by a life sentence, or life without parole, there is no statute of limitations. The prosecutor may file charges at any point after discovering the crime. Likewise, there is no statute of limitations for the charge of embezzlement of public money. For all other offenses punishable by eight years or more in prison, the statute of limitations for prosecution is six years after the crime is committed. For all offenses punishable by a prison sentence, except for those noted above, the statute of limitations is three years from the date of the offense. Misdemeanor offenses typically have much shorter statues of limitations, usually only one to two years. If prosecution of these crimes does not begin before the statute of limitations runs out, it cannot be commenced at all. Prosecution may be considered commenced by a misdemeanor or infraction charge being filed against the defendant, an indictment or information is filed on the case, a defendant facing a felony charge is arraigned, or when an arrest or bench warrant is issued.
While these time limits may seem pretty cut and dry, California laws allow for numerous exceptions and instances where the rules change and the statute may be extended. In certain cases, the state may toll the statute, meaning they put it on hold or stop it from running. Certain sex crimes have significantly longer statutes of limitations compared to other crimes of its class. For example, with child sexual abuse charges, the statute of limitations will depend on the age of the victim, sometimes running until the victim's 40th birthday. For the production of pornographic material with a minor, the statute of limitation is ten years from the date of the production. Certain cases involving the discovery of DNA evidence may have varied statutes depending on when the evidence become known.
If you have reason to believe you could be prosecuted for a crime you committed in the past, you should speak with an experienced California criminal defense attorney. He or she can advise you on when the statute of limitations, if any, will run on your specific crime and what exceptions or extensions your specific case may warrant. Remember, some crimes have no time limit at all while others may have a limit of only a few years. Speaking with an attorney may give you peace of mind. If your crime has no statute of limitations or if it does but it hasn't run yet, you should speak with an attorney about what you should be doing now to preserve any evidence that you could use in your defense later on.
Are you in the Visalia or Tulare area and have questions about the statute of limitations for a specific crime? At The Law Offices of Christopher Martens, we know criminal defense and can help you understand the charges you could face. Criminal defense attorney Christopher Martens has successfully represented clients in Fresno, Tulare and Kings Counties for over ten years and can strategize a solid defense for your case. Contact our Visalia or Hanford, CA offices at 559-967-7386 or email us at [email protected] to discuss your case.