What Is The Statute of Limitations in California?

The statute of limitations began during the Roman era as it was part of Roman law. Over the years, many countries, including the United States, adopted this legal doctrine. 

However, in the U.S., the statute of limitations is applied differently compared to other countries. For instance, the limitation for civil and criminal cases is different. Another major difference is that each state has its limitations. For example, while other states have a statute of limitations for criminal cases, Wyoming doesn’t.

In this article, we will focus on the statute of limitations in California. Keep reading to learn more about this rule. 

What Is The Statute of Limitations in California? 

The statute of limitations is the maximum time someone can initiate a legal claim. However, there isn’t a standard timeline in all cases because it varies based on the offense and jurisdiction. 

So, how does it work? In California, the discovery rule determines when the statute of limitation commences, meaning it starts on the date when the claimant discovers the injury and not when the offense took place. 

For example, if someone commits a crime, but the offense is discovered four months later, the statute of limitations will start after four months. The primary aim of this legal doctrine is to protect defendants. The court reasons that it’s easy to lose crucial evidence as time passes, making it harder for someone to defend themselves. 

For example, initiating a claim years later may be hard because some witnesses may be dead, while others may not remember the facts correctly. This creates an unfair trial because the witnesses’ testimonies won’t be 100% certain. 

However, severe crimes like murder and rape don’t have any limitations, meaning you can initiate such a case years later. 

Ultimately, even though the statute of limitations seems rigid, there are specific incidences where the court may toll these limitations to give someone sufficient time to file their case. 

California’s General Rule of the Statute of Limitation  

statute of limitations in california

California has a general rule on the statute of limitations for specific cases. Here are some of the rules:

  • No statute of limitation. It entails severe crimes that may be punished by life imprisonment. Examples include murder, rape, and kidnapping. 
  • A one-year statute of limitation. It includes minor offenses, primarily crimes that may not lead to imprisonment. Examples include petty theft and a first-time driving under the influence charge
  • A three-year statute of limitation. It includes crimes that are punishable by imprisonment. Examples include burglary and assault. 
  • A six-year statute of limitation. It includes severe crimes that may lead to more than eight years of imprisonment. Examples include robbery with violence and arson. 

Specific Offenses and Their Statute of Limitations 

Since each offense is different, they all have varying statutes of limitations. Let’s discuss these offenses in detail.  

Criminal Offenses 

As mentioned earlier, severe criminal offenses don’t have any limitations. Examples include treason, murder, and embezzling public funds. The only exception involves cases where someone sexually assaults a child. You cannot bring such a claim if the victim is more than 40 years old. 

However, there are specific criminal offenses that have unique statutes of limitations. These include: 

  • Child pornography. You have ten years to bring a child pornography charge. You also have ten years to initiate a crime involving a sex offender. 
  • Elderly crime. The maximum time limit to initiate an elderly abuse charge is five years. 
  • Fraud. The statute of limitation on fraud cases is four years. The same timeline applies to embezzlement cases involving employees, misconduct claims, especially from a public official, and fraud. 
  • Crimes against a minor. Crimes against a minor have a time limit of three years. 
  • Sexual crimes. The statute of limitation on sexual crimes is two years. It involves crimes where a doctor or therapist sexually assaults their patient. 

The statute of limitation in California involving criminal offenses varies depending on the severity of the crime. 


Misdemeanors are crimes that may not lead to imprisonment. On many occasions, the court usually orders the offender to pay fines or do community service. 

In California, the general statute of limitation for misdemeanors is one year. Examples of such crimes include: 

  • Petty theft
  • Prostitution 
  • Disturbing people’s peace
  • First-time DUI charge 

However, certain misdemeanor crimes are exempted from this one-year time limit. Examples include: 

  • Child molestation. The statute of limitation for such a crime is three years.
  • Violating various business codes. These misdemeanor crimes have a statute of limitation of one to four years. However, it depends on the specific business codes breached. 

The statute of limitation for misdemeanor crimes is lower than criminal offenses because these crimes don’t attract a hefty punishment.  


A felony is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor. In California, the general statute of limitations for felonies is three years. However, this limitation applies to crimes that carry a less than 8-year prison sentence. If the felony may land you in jail for more than eight years, then the statute of limitations increases to six years. 

Examples of felonies with a three-year statute of limitation include: 

  • Selling drugs
  • Burglary 
  • Physical assault using a dangerous weapon 
  • Grand theft

In contrast, felonies with a six-year statute of limitation include: 

  • Robbery with violence 
  • Arson 
  • Manslaughter, especially involving a DUI incident 

However, there are specific felonies with different statute of limitations. For example, fraud, breach of trust, and theft have a four-year statute of limitations. Another example is injuring a spouse, which gives someone a time limit of five years before they can file the claim. 

Civil Cases 

Civil cases are lawsuits involving conflicts between people or institutions. In California, the general statute of limitation for civil cases is from one to ten years, depending on the case. 

Some notable examples include: 

  • Breach of contract cases. A claimant has four years to file a claim involving a written contract and two years to file charges involving an oral contract. 
  • Veterinarian malpractice charges. The statute of limitation for veterinarian charges is one year for both injury and death. 
  • Medical malpractice charges. One has three years to file a medical malpractice lawsuit from when the incident happened. However, if you discover that your current injuries stem from medical malpractice after three years, you have one year to file your claim. 

Ultimately, it’s essential to consult an attorney for civil cases to determine the statute of limitation for your particular case. 

Can You Still Sue After the Statute of Limitation Has Passed? 

You cannot sue someone after the statute of limitation has passed. However, there are certain situations where this limitation can be tolled.

Let’s discuss these situations in detail. 

When Dealing With a Minor 

A court may extend the statute of limitation if the claimant is a minor. A minor cannot file a lawsuit until they attain legal age. The only way they can file a claim is by having a representative file it. However, in some circumstances, the court may extend the statute of limitation until they attain the legal age of filing a lawsuit.

When Dealing With a Defendant from Another State 

The court may extend the statute of limitation if the defendant is from another state and the claimant needs time to find them. However, the claimant must convince the court they have reasonable resources to find the defendant to extend the deadline. 

If the Victim is Incapacitated 

The court may extend the statute of limitation if the victim is incapacitated. However, for someone to prevail in such a motion, they must provide medical records displaying that the victim is in a coma. 

The court will also extend the statute of limitation if the victim is mentally incompetent to file a legal claim. However, the victim must provide medical records to demonstrate their current mental capacity. 

If The Victim Is in Prison or Military Service 

The court may extend the statute of limitation if the victim is in prison. However, they cannot extend it for more than two years unless the victim is imprisoned for life. 

Additionally, the court may toll the statute of limitation if the victim is currently in military service.

One thing to note is that once the court tolls the statute of limitation, the clock stops running and resumes after the toll has expired. 

What Happens If You are Charged After the Statute of Limitation Has Lapsed? 

The court will dismiss your case if you are charged after the statute of limitation has passed. Your lawyer only has to file a motion to dismiss and argue that the claimant didn’t meet the statute of limitation requirement. 

Contact Garrett T. Rice for Help 

As mentioned above, you can lose your case if you file it after the statute of limitation has passed. As such, the best solution is to contact an attorney immediately after the incident. Your attorney will evaluate the case and file it before the deadline lapses. 

Another advantage of seeking legal help immediately is that it gives the attorney time to review the case and decide if an extension is required. As highlighted above, there are certain circumstances when the court can extend the statute of limitation. Thus, your attorney will assess your case and seek a compelling reason to ask for an extension based on your current circumstances. 

Contact Garrett T. Rice for more information on the statute of limitations in California and how they apply in your case.

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