California Criminal Statute of Limitations Guide

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If you or a loved one are under investigation by the police, you want to know what might happen. Can the police charge you with a crime? How long can they put your life under a microscope?

California criminal defense attorneys from the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, are here to answer your questions.

We can protect you during the criminal investigation process and defend you or your loved one in court.

So, we invite you to contact us online or call 619-775-1807 to set up a free, confidential consultation.

How Long Do the Police Have to Charge You with a Crime?

Most people want to know how long they have to wait to find out if they will be charged with a crime. Unfortunately, the answer is that it depends.

Once the police learn that a crime happened, they begin an investigation. This investigation can last for weeks or even months.

The police often consult with the prosecutor once they have a suspect.

Keep in mind that it is up to the prosecutor whether or not you are charged with a crime—not the police.

The prosecutor reviews the information that the police provide and then decides whether to file charges and which charges to file.

If you were arrested and are being held in custody, the prosecutor usually has 48 hours to charge you.

If the prosecutor doesn’t file charges within that time, the police must release you from custody. But the case does not necessarily end there.

Even though they had to release you from jail, the prosecutor might bring charges against you weeks or months later if they believe you committed a crime.

How long a prosecutor has to do that depends on the statute of limitations for that offense.

What Is a Criminal Statute of Limitations in California?

A statute of limitations is how long a prosecutor has to pursue a case against someone. In civil cases, the statute of limitations applies to private plaintiffs.

A criminal statute of limitations applies to how long a federal or state prosecutor has to file criminal charges against the accused. 

Many people think of the statute of limitations as a clock. A certain issue or event starts the clock ticking and gives the prosecutor a set timeframe within which to file charges.

If the prosecutor does not pursue a case once the deadline passes, they no longer have the right to file charges.

When Does the Clock Start to Run for the Statute of Limitations?

In California, the clock starts running when the police discover someone committed a crime. This concept is called the Discovery Rule.

The clock does not start when the crime occurred because the police might not know about the crime for hours, days, or even weeks.

Also, the clock does not wait until the police have investigated and discovered a person of interest. The clock starts when the police discover the crime, whether they have a suspect.

That being said, some situations pause or “toll” the clock. That time that passes during the pause does not count against the deadline.

For example, the statute of limitations is tolled if the defendant is out of state, evading arrest, or has a pending case against them for the same offense.  

As one of the best criminal defense lawyers in California, Kerry Armstrong has helped thousands of clients aggressively defend their cases and stood by his client every step of the way.

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What if the Statute of Limitations Expired?

If the statute of limitations for a crime runs out, the prosecutor cannot file charges against you.That does not mean prosecutors do not try, however.

Call a criminal defense attorney if you or a loved one are facing charges and believe the time has run out. You can and should challenge the charges immediately.

If you hire a defense attorney fast enough, they can move to dismiss the case at your arraignment. If the statute has expired, the judge should dismiss the case.

What Are Common Criminal Statutes of Limitations in California?

The statute of limitations for crimes in California is typically determined by whether the offense is a misdemeanor or felony.

Misdemeanor crimes have a one-year limit, while many felony crimes have a three-year limit. However, there are several exceptions for statutes of limitations for felonies in California.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Assault in California?

Assault and battery crimes in California can be a misdemeanor or felony. The level of the charge will influence how long the prosecutor has to charge you.

For simple assault, the prosecutor has one year to file charges, while for felony assault, they have three years.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Theft in California?

Theft is similar to assault in that it can be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the facts.

If you’re charged with petty theft, the statute of limitations is one year. But if you’re facing a felony theft offense, like grand theft or burglary, then the prosecutor has three years to file charges.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Murder in California?

For the most serious and violent crimes, California does not have a statute of limitations.

Under California Penal Code section 799, for embezzlement of public money or an offense that is punishable by death, life in prison, or life without parole, the prosecutor can bring charges at any time.

There is also no statute of limitations for other serious crimes, including:

For other serious felonies that are punishable by eight years or more in prison, the statute of limitation is six years.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Domestic Violence in California?

A new law passed in 2019 increases the length of the statute of limitation on domestic violence cases from 3 years to 5 years. Under SB 273, the prosecution can bring criminal charges against a defendant for up to half a decade after the incident.

“This bill would authorize prosecution for that crime to be commenced within 5 years. The bill would apply to crimes that are committed on or after January 1, 2020, and to crimes for which the statute of limitations that was in effect prior to January 1, 2020, has not run as of January 1, 2020.”

Examples of One-Year Statute of Limitation Crimes

The following crimes have a one-year statute of limitations:

  • Petty theft,
  • Shoplifting,
  • Receiving stolen property of $950 value or less,
  • DUI,
  • Drunk in public,
  • Hit-and-run involving property damage,
  • Indecent exposure, and
  • Disorderly conduct.

California has crimes called “wobblers,” which a prosecutor can charge as a misdemeanor or felony.

Wobblers that a prosecutor charges as a misdemeanor still receive the benefit of the felony-level statute of limitations.

That means a prosecutor could have three years to file a case against you even if the charge could be a misdemeanor.

Examples of Three-Year Statute of Limitation Crimes

Crimes that have three-year statutes of limitations include:

If the prosecution does not file within three years, these cases can be dismissed.

Examples of Six-Year Statute of Limitation Crimes

Crimes that have six-year limits include:

If you know you are a suspect in these types of crimes, know that it is not over for a full six years.

Other California Criminal Statutes of Limitation

The one, three, and six-year statutes of limitations are common, but not the whole story. There are several other statutes of limitations based on particular crimes.

  • Ten years: Crimes involving producing child pornography and failure to register as a sexual offender after conviction.
  • Five years: Elder abuse and other crimes against elders or dependent adults.
  • Four years: Crimes involving fraud, breach of fiduciary obligation, theft from an elder, or misconduct of a public officer or employee.
  • Two years: Sexual crimes by a therapist or physician against a patient.

If you still are not sure what the statute of limitations is for a specific crime, give us a call.

Talk with a Criminal Defense Attorney About the Statute of Limitations

Once you realize you or a loved one is under investigation, the right move is to call the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC.

You should consult an attorney about:

  • When to answer a police officer’s questions
  • The charges a prosecutor could bring
  • The level of the possible charges
  • The statute of limitation for the potential charges
  • How you can defend and protect yourself right now

We offer free, confidential investigations. There’s no risk in calling (619) 776-3166 or using the online form to set up a time to talk with us.

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Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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