In California, there are 2 separate areas of the law that influence whether a case is too old to prosecute. The easiest issue is when a case can no longer legally be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations. That means, from the date the offense was committed, the prosecution has a set time to get your case filed in the courthouse. For misdemeanors, like most DUIs, petty thefts, minor assaults, minor domestic violence, or disturbing the peace, and some lesser sex crimes, under the influence of drugs cases, that time is one year. For many felonies, the statute of limitations is 3 years.
There are many felonies with longer statutes of limitations. I cannot list all of them here. The statutes of limitations for criminal offenses in California starts at Section 800 of the California Penal Code. Felonies with longer statutes of limitations include crimes involving fraud, where a victim does not know they have been defrauded for some time, other crimes involving official conduct, crimes punishable by life imprisonment, most sex offenses. The crime of murder has no statute of limitations and can be prosecuted any time.
If a sex crime or sex offense is committed against a minor, the crime can be reported after the child has become an adult. This means it is possible in some cases to be prosecuted years after the victim says that the sexual offense was perpetrated. The California Penal Code Section that governs many sexual offenses involving minors is California penal Code section 803. It is very complicated and involves some very specific definitions that need to be discussed with a criminal lawyer.
Because statute of limitations questions can be so complex, never assume that a crime simply must be too old. You need a criminal attorney, and even then, the criminal lawyer will need to check the Code because of the nature of the exceptions that have been written into the statute.
For any criminal offense that is brought to the police after the statute of limitations has run, that criminal case cannot be prosecuted.
Separate from the statute of limitations issue are the right to a speedy trial and due process of law. This area is even more complicated than statutes of limitations. This is where a criminal offense has been filed against someone, but that person may not know because they were not arrested for the crime. For example, two people who were dating have an argument and break up on the spot. One party is hurt or angry and calls the police and reports a domestic violence case after the other person has walked out. If police cannot find the person who walked away, that person may never know a police report for domestic violence has been filed by the ex. If the district attorney files charges based upon what the complaining party says, then an arrest warrant for a criminal offense gets sent to the address the police have—often an old address. That person could go months or years without knowing there is a domestic violence warrant out for him/her. Depending on the length of time that has passed, and whether or not any efforts were made to contact the missing party, that person may well be able to get the case dismissed as a violation of their due process rights.
Another example is a DUI, or an assault and battery case where the suspect gets injured and ends up in the hospital but arrest papers do not get processed and the suspect is released. Again, an arrest warrant would then need to go to that person’s address or the police would need to find and arrest the suspect. If this is not successful, there may be a passage of time and a statute of limitations issue.
Generally speaking, if a criminal case is years old, and witnesses are no longer available, a speedy trial motion may get the case dismissed. This is ALWAYS worth pursuing when the case is old. You need to talk to a criminal defense attorney.