The phrase statute of limitations refers to a predetermined amount of time that has to pass before a person can no longer be convicted of a crime. Each state sets their own statute of limitations for different types of crimes. Statute of limitations applies to both criminal civil lawsuits.
Why Statute of Limitations Exist
The idea of putting a time limit on a crime might seem strange. The logic behind the situation is that by limiting the amount of time a case can be investigated and charges brought, the fairer the justice system is being. The general belief is that after X amount of time has passed, the odds of the defendant getting a fair trial drastically decrease. Not only has the time made witness statements less reliable, but it also means that the defendant is less likely to be in possession of things such as receipts and other records they’d normally use to prove their innocence.
Embezzlement of Public Funds and Murder
For major crimes, including the embezzlement of public funds and murder, California doesn’t have a statute of limitations. you can be charged with these 1, 5, 20, even 100 years after the crime was committed. If you’ve committed one of these major crimes in California and the prosecution decides they have enough evidence to charge you, your best hope is that enough time has passed that witnesses have begun to forget what has happened.
Lesser Felonies and Misdemeanors
For other types of felony crimes, the State of California has a relatively short statute of limitations. In most cases, if three years have passed since the initial crime and you haven’t been charged within three years, you can relax. With most misdemeanors, the California statute of limitations is either two or three years.
There is a Catch
There is one catch that complicates the statute of limitations for both misdemeanors and felonies. The clock doesn’t start ticking until the authorities are aware the crime has taken place. For example, if someone drives off without paying for their gas, and no one realizes that it’s happened for three years, you can still be charged for the drive-off nearly six years after the fact. This loophole is called California’s Discovery Rule.
It’s worth noting that two to three years is the general statute of limitations for crimes committed in the State of California today.