Statutes of limitations set time limits for the government to bring criminal charges in a case. If the prosecution charges someone after the applicable time period has passed, the person charged can have the case dismissed.
In California and most other states, violent crimes generally have longer statutes of limitations, and some crimes (like murder) have no statute of limitations—meaning the government can file criminal charges for the alleged offense at any time. In certain instances, statutes of limitations are "tolled" (suspended), allowing the government more time to bring a case.
California's complex laws set time limits for almost all offenses, along with various exceptions and tolling rules.
Like many states, California sets time limits for a host of specific crimes. For crimes not specifically listed in the statute, a general statute of limitations applies based on the maximum punishment set for the crime.
The general time limits are:
No time limit exists for crimes punishable by death or a life sentence, such as first-degree murder and treason. Other crimes with no limitations period include embezzlement of public money and felony rape offenses involving force or violence.
The limitations period for "wobbler" offenses—crimes that can be charged or sentenced as either misdemeanors or felonies—can be tricky. If the prosecutor charges a wobbler offense as a felony, generally the time limit for the felony—rather than the misdemeanor—punishment applies.
Below are examples of time limits for specific crimes in California. Keep in mind that the following is a partial list that broadly summarizes the law. You should look at the actual law for nuances, exceptions, and legislative changes—and know that court rulings can affect the interpretation of the law. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 799 to 805 (2024).)
Murder in the first degree
Rape involving force or violence
Aggravated sexual assault of a child
Embezzlement of public money
No time limit
Certain felony sex offenses against a child
Up to the victim's 40th birthday
Other felony sex offenses that require sex offender registration
Certain crimes committed against elderly or dependent adults
Domestic violence—infliction of bodily injury against a current or former intimate partner
Misconduct by a public official
Crimes of theft or embezzlement against elderly or dependent adults
4 years after the discovery of offense or completion of offense, whichever is later
Generally, the statute of limitations starts when the crime occurs. But in circumstances where it's difficult to discover the crime or a victim might be particularly scared to report it, the law might give the prosecution more time to file.
For instance, California law gives the prosecution a year—from the date that the victim reports the crime—to file certain sex-offense charges. The rule applies if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense, the normal limitations period has expired, and other circumstances are present. (Cal. Penal Code § 803 (2024).)
Statutes of limitations are confusing, to say the least. Plus, the same conduct can be the basis for multiple criminal charges, meaning that more than one limitations period could apply. Consult a knowledgeable attorney in your area to understand how the statutes of limitations apply in a specific case.