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Penal Code 801 | Statute of Limitations for Felonies

Penal Code 801 | Statute of Limitations for Felonies in California

The statute of limitations refers to the maximum time after an event when legal proceedings can be initiated. In criminal law, it sets a time limit for prosecutors to file charges against a defendant. This article provides an overview of California’s statute of limitations for felonies under Penal Code 801.

What is Penal Code 801?

Section 801 of California’s Penal Code contains the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges. It states that prosecution for a felony must be commenced within a certain number of years after it is committed.

The length of the limitation period depends on the seriousness of the crime:

  • 3 years – “normal” felonies like grand theft, fraud, or battery
  • 6 years – theft or embezzlement of public funds
  • No limit – violent felonies like murder, manslaughter, arson causing bodily injury, and sexual abuse of a child

So in most cases, prosecutors have 3 years from the date the crime occurred to file charges. Otherwise, the right to prosecute expires and defendants gain “statutory immunity” from being charged.

When Does the Clock Start Ticking?

The statute of limitations clock starts ticking on the date the crime is complete. For ongoing crimes like conspiracy, abuse, or neglect, the clock starts when the criminal conduct ends.

If crimes are discovered well after they occur, the discovery rule may extend the filing deadline. This rule postpones the limitation period until the crime is discovered by authorities or the victim. But it only applies to certain offenses like fraud, theft, or sexual abuse.

Tolling Provisions

In addition to the discovery rule, Penal Code 803 contains “tolling provisions” that pause the statute of limitations clock under certain conditions:

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  • Defendant is out of state – clock stops while they are not “within the state.”
  • Unknown defendant – clock stops while the defendant’s true name or whereabouts are unknown.
  • DNA evidence – clock stops while DNA analysis is pending.
  • Child abuse – clock stops while the victim is alive and under age 28.

These provisions allow prosecutors to file charges even after the original deadline has passed. The clock only resumes ticking once the conditions no longer apply.

Why Do Statutes of Limitations Exist?

Statutes of limitation serve several important purposes in criminal law:

  • Prevent stale claims – Evidence deteriorates over time, so statutes of limitation ensure claims are filed while evidence is fresh.
  • Limit prolonged fear and stress – Defendants should not have to worry about charges indefinitely.
  • Encourage diligent investigation – Law enforcement has incentive to promptly investigate crimes if time is limited.
  • Support rehabilitation – Defendants who avoid further crimes for a period of time may be rehabilitated.

Without limitation periods, law enforcement could delay charges for decades, which undermines these goals. Statutes of limitation help balance the interests of both prosecutors and defendants.

How Do Statutes of Limitation Affect Felony Cases?

For felonies that carry a 3-year limitation period, the deadline significantly impacts prosecution. Charges for grand theft, battery, or fraud must be filed within 3 years or the case cannot proceed. Even if evidence clearly proves guilt, expiration of the deadline prevents conviction.

The short deadline puts pressure on police and prosecutors to swiftly investigate these crimes and make charging decisions. Rushing investigations raises the risk of overlooking evidence or arresting the wrong suspects. And if charges are filed right before the deadline, the defense has little time to prepare.

The 6-year period for public theft or embezzlement allows more time to build strong cases. But after 6 years, memories fade and evidence disappears. Witnesses move away or even pass away. These cases become much harder, if not impossible, to prosecute.

Calls to Extend or Eliminate Statutes of Limitation

In recent years, there have been calls to extend or eliminate limitation periods for certain offenses, especially sexual abuse of children. Some argue that statutes of limitation let offenders escape justice and discourage victims from coming forward.

California previously had a 10-year statute of limitations for child molestation. But after public outcry over Catholic Church abuse scandals, it was extended to age 28 plus 3 years in 2004. And a 2016 law entirely eliminated the limitation period for certain sex crimes against minors.

While these changes give prosecutors more time to file charges, they also heighten risks of unfair trials due to deteriorated evidence. There are good-faith arguments on both sides of this complex issue.

Arguments Against Lengthening Statutes of Limitation

Some lawmakers, legal experts and advocates oppose extending statutes of limitation. They argue:

  • Evidence quality declines over time, raising the risk of wrongful convictions.
  • It undermines the accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.
  • It goes against the core purpose of statutes of limitation.
  • Cases where evidence was concealed could fall under tolling provisions.
  • Eliminating limits could overwhelm courts with decades-old cases.

Critics claim extending these deadlines compromises the integrity of the legal system. While older cases can be hard to prosecute, lowering standards of evidence and due process is not the answer in their view.

Arguments for Lengthening Statutes of Limitation

Supporters of longer statutes of limitation argue:

  • It allows more victims to seek justice, especially for childhood abuse.
  • Advancing DNA technology makes evidence in older cases more reliable.
  • Trauma can cause long delays in reporting crimes.
  • Short statutes of limitation deny victims their day in court.
  • Public safety is enhanced by prosecuting past crimes.

Advocates say extending deadlines empowers victims and prevents criminals from escaping consequences for horrific acts. In their view, statutes of limitation should reflect our evolving understanding of sexual violence.

The Debate Over “Revival Laws”

In addition to extending statutes of limitation, some states have passed “revival laws” temporarily lifting time limits on filing charges. These laws reopen a window for prosecuting previously time-barred offenses.

Revival laws most often target child sex abuse cases where the statute of limitations has already expired. Their main purpose is to give past victims a second chance at justice.

But defense lawyers argue revival laws violate the Constitution’s ex post facto clause since they change the rules after the fact. Prosecutors respond that time limits are procedural rules that can be adjusted, rather than substantive criminal laws.

Courts have generally upheld revival laws for civil cases, but their constitutionality remains disputed in criminal cases. So far, lawmakers in 17 states have enacted revival laws for past sex crimes.

When Can Felony Cases be Re-Filed After Dismissal?

If felony charges are filed within the limitation period but later dismissed by a judge, prosecutors can re-file the charges under Penal Code 1387. This code section allows one re-filing after a felony case is dismissed, with certain exceptions.

But re-filing must occur within 60 days of dismissal or before the original statute of limitations expires – whichever period is longer. This gives prosecutors a limited window to re-file after losing a dismissal motion.

However, 1387 prohibits re-filing in certain situations where re-prosecuting would be unfair:

  • Case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
  • Previous dismissals involved the same conduct or offense.
  • Case was previously dismissed “in furtherance of justice.”

These restrictions aim to balance fairness for defendants and the state’s interest in prosecuting crimes.

Can a Felony Become a Misdemeanor After the Statute Expires?

Under Penal Code 17, prosecutors can choose to charge an offense as either a felony or misdemeanor, known as a “wobbler.” The maximum sentence depends on the charging decision.

For wobblers, the statute of limitations is based on the actual charges filed. If a felony charge is barred by the statute of limitations, prosecutors cannot re-file the same offense as a misdemeanor.

However, if misdemeanor charges were filed before the deadline, the case can still proceed. The offense becomes a misdemeanor for all purposes, regardless of the underlying facts.

When Does the Statute of Limitations Expire for Federal Crimes?

Federal crimes are governed by Title 18 of the U.S. Code rather than state statutes. Limitation periods for federal offenses include:

  • 5 years – Most felonies like bribery, mail fraud, and racketeering
  • 8 years – Certain terrorism offenses
  • No limit – Crimes punishable by death, kidnapping, child abuse, and war crimes

These federal deadlines apply regardless of state time limits. But federal and state charges can proceed simultaneously if both are filed on time.

How Do Statutes of Limitation Affect Plea Bargains and Sentencing?

As the statute of limitations approaches, defendants may be motivated to negotiate plea deals rather than risk charges expiring. Prosecutors also have incentive to offer better plea bargains before time runs out.

If a plea deal is reached, charges can be filed even after the limitation period expires. This is because the deal waives defendants’ right to assert the statute of limitations as a defense.

During sentencing, expired statutes of limitation prevent judges from imposing probation or reducing charges. But they do not restrict sentencing if charges were filed on time.


Statutes of limitation require prosecutors to promptly investigate crimes and file charges within a specified timeframe. For most California felonies, this deadline is 3 years from the offense. But complex tolling rules, revival laws, and exceptions make application of these deadlines highly fact-specific.

Policymakers continue to reevaluate statutes of limitation, especially for serious crimes like sexual abuse. But these time limits remain controversial given their implications for due process, evidence quality, and access to justice.

Navigating California’s statute of limitations requires a nuanced understanding of Penal Code Sections 801-803. Those facing potential charges should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney regarding their rights and options under this law.


California Penal Code 801

California Penal Code 803

California Penal Code 1387

California Penal Code 17


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