Why is there a Statute of Limitations in criminal cases?
In general, a Statute of Limitations protects the defendant from having to defend him or herself without enough good evidence. As time passes, physical evidence is lost or deteriorates and eyewitnesses move away or can no longer remember details. So after a certain point prosecution becomes unfair. Practically, in a criminal case, the defense attorney would argue that the case against his client should be dismissed because the applicable Statute of Limitations has expired.
Are there any situations when the Statute of Limitations stops?
Yes. When the Statute of Limitation is "tolled" it means that the clock stops moving forward. For example, for a number of crimes against children, the statute is tolled until the child is 21 years old. The statute also does not run for three years while a defendant is not in the state of California. Furthermore, If DNA evidence is discovered that identifies a sex crime perpetrator, it does not matter when the crime was committed. The prosecution has one year from the identification.
Do all crimes have a Statute of Limitations in California?
No. Not all crimes are governed by a Statute of Limitations. According to CA Penal Code section 799, "Prosecution for an offense punishable by death or by imprisonment in the state prison for life or for life without the possibility of parole, or for the embezzlement of public money, may be commenced at any time." For example, there is no Statute of Limitations for murder.
Do all crimes have the same Statute of Limitations?
No. The Statute of Limitations in California tends to follow the severity of the penalty for the crime. As a general rule, crimes punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for eight years or more have a Statute of Limitations of 6 years after commission of the offense. (PC 800) Where the crime is punishable by imprisonment, the Statute of Limitations is 3 years (P.C. 801). Misdemeanors generally have a 1 year Statute of Limitations. There are significant variations and exceptions in California criminal Statutes of Limitation. For example, if a defendant commits a "wobbler" (a crime that can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor) the Statute of Limitations will depend on how the DA decides to charge it.
What if DNA evidence identifies a person who committed the crime after the statute has expired?
There is a major Statute of Limitations exception for all of the sex crimes listed in 290 (c) of Penal Code (e.g., rape, sodomy, etc). Penal code section 803(g)(1) permits a criminal complaint to be filed "within one year of the date on which the identity of the suspect is conclusively established by DNA testing," regardless of whether the defendant's identity is established 20, 30 or 50 years after the crime was committed. In other words, if certain conditions are met, it does not matter when the crime was committed. The clock starts ticking when the DNA testing has been substantially completed.
Why it is important to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney
The Statute of Limitations law in the California Penal Code is complicated and full of exceptions. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to recognize this possible defense, and quickly move to have the case dismissed.