What is the Statute of Limitations for Drug Possession in California?

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If you have been arrested or are under investigation for drug possession, you may be wondering how long a potential charge may be hanging over your head.

California imposes a statute of limitations on all crimes, including drug possession charges. This is a cap on the amount of time the prosecution could wait before filing criminal charges.

A San Diego criminal defense lawyer could determine if the California statute of limitations for drug possession applies in your case.

If so, the court might dismiss your case outright before it even proceeds to trial.

To speak with a California drug defense lawyer, please contact the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC today.

California Statute of Limitations for Drug Possession

California Penal Code Section 801 indicates that the statute of limitations for a crime punishable by confinement in the state prison is three years.

Drug possession, even of marijuana in most cases (if a large amount), remains punishable by imprisonment in California.

Therefore, the statute of limitations for a drug possession charge is typically three years.

For possession charges not punishable by imprisonment—primarily possession of small amounts of marijuana—the statute of limitations is one year.

The purpose of a statute of limitations is to force the prosecution to file a criminal case within a reasonable period of time if they wish to bring charges against someone.

If they do not file charges before the limitations period runs out, then a defendant cannot be prosecuted for the crime.

The prosecution does not have to bring the case to trial within three years of the alleged crime; rather, the case must merely be filed with the court within three years of the date of the offense. 

However, if a trial is unreasonably delayed for reasons not the fault of the defendant, a savvy and experienced San Diego drug defense lawyer could argue that the prosecution or the court violated the defendant’s rights to a speedy trial.

In some circumstances, the prosecution could argue that the three-year statute of limitations on drug possession in California was “tolled” or suspended, based on some action taken by the person suspected of drug possession.

If the person under suspicion of drug possession leaves California, then the statute of limitations must toll for the amount of time the suspect left California. However, the tolling period is limited to three years.

Therefore, the prosecution can have no more than six years to charge the individual with drug possession without violating the statute of limitations for possession of drugs in California.

How Does the Statute of Limitations Work in California?

The statute of limitations for drug possession in California does not begin until the crime is complete.

Determining the date the “clock begins to tick” for ongoing crimes such as drug possession can be difficult.

A seasoned criminal defense lawyer will know when the statute of limitations lapses, or ends, for your California drug possession charge.

In most drug cases, the police will arrest a suspect on drug possession charges when they believe they have probable cause. 

The police then hand the case over to the prosecution (usually the county District Attorney’s Office if it is a state crime). 

The District Attorney’s Office then begins the prosecution at that time.

Rarely do deputy district attorneys wait a long time to then press charges, but this does occur at times based on a variety of reasons. 

Investigators might decline to arrest a person on drug charges if the police have set up a wide-sweeping investigation.

In that instance, the law-enforcement investigators might have probable cause to arrest one or more individuals for drug possession charges but elect to wait in order to complete their investigation before making arrests.

Arresting people before the police complete their inquiry might jeopardize the investigation.

These long-term drug interdiction investigations could implicate the statute of limitations on drug possession.

Penalties for Marijuana Possession in California 

Many crimes related to the possession of cannabis are infractions and not technically criminal offenses.

However, possessing 28.5 grams of cannabis or 8 grams of concentrated cannabis is a crime punishable by no more than six months in jail. 

Hiring a Defense Attorney After a Drug Possession Arrest or Charge

Drug possession convictions could have severe implications for a person’s life. Having every defense at your disposal is vital to limiting the disruption a San Diego drug charge could have on your life.

Call the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC at 619-234-2300 or contact us online today to speak with an aggressive criminal defense lawyer who understands the statute of limitations on drug charges in San Diego.

We encourage you to call as soon as you learn about law-enforcement involvement in your life.

We offer free and confidential consultations to discuss your case at length and we offer you compassion in this most troubling time.

Author Photo

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.