How Long Can a Felony Case Stay Open?

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The legal process can be exhaustive and confusing, and depending on the outcome and how an individual exercises their rights, the process can be positive or negative.

During a felony trial, at some point, an attorney should explain the legal process. Knowing what to expect during a criminal trial can ease anxiety, but there is no telling what will happen or what the outcome will be. 

To prepare for what may lie ahead, this article will cover important steps that an individual may encounter during a criminal trial.

  • Felony Indictment
  • Felony Arraignment
  • Entering a Plea
  • Statute of Limitations
  • Have More Questions?

Felony Indictment

If you are the target of a felony investigation, there is a process that takes place before you can be charged or indicted. Investigators will have gathered information and evidence to make a case against an individual whom they suspect of committing a crime.

If you come under suspicion of committing a felony, the next step will be waiting on a felony indictment, or other charging documents, to be handed down from a prosecutor. The length of time a prosecutor has to hand down charges will vary based on the crime and the statute of limitations for the crime in question. 

If an individual is charged with a federal crime, the case is more likely to be presented to a grand jury for indictment. During an indictment, a grand jury will vote on whether or not to charge an individual with a crime. A decision will come after a jury hears evidence from a federal prosecutor. If the jury votes to indict an individual, then the way is clear for a prosecutor to charge and arrest the individual.

A felony indictment is a written accusation presented to a judge that an individual has committed a crime. This may be an act performed or something omitted that is punishable by the law. The purpose of a felony indictment is to inform the individual of the charges, allowing them to obtain legal counsel to prepare a defense.

A person is entitled to not be prosecuted until a Grand Jury has determined that there is enough evidence to support criminal prosecution and establish the accuracy of a pending charge.

The Fifth Amendment guarantees that, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment of a Grand Jury…” The Grand Jury will not decide guilt. It will decide on the probability that a crime was committed, that the accused did it, and should be tried for it.

The decision that there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial is called a true bill while the decision that there is not enough evidence is called no bill. The decision of the Grand Jury does not have to be unanimous. A simple majority is enough to bring back a felony indictment.

In regard to state felony cases, the process can be simplified. A prosecutor will charge an individual based on reasonable suspicion from the evidence provided by arresting officers and detectives. After being charged with a crime, a pre-trial court date will be set. At the first court hearing, charges against the individual will be read, and bail is set. Needy individuals will be provided with an attorney assigned to them by the court.

How Long Do Police Have To File Charges?

If an individual is being detained, there are limitations to the hold. In 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that if an individual is arrested, without a warrant, the police have 48 hours to charge them with a crime or release them. This stands in felony and misdemeanor cases alike. However, several exceptions have been made in recent years and individuals may be held for up to seven days before being charged with a crime.

If an individual is not being detained, the length of time a police officer or detective has to file charges will vary based on the type of crime and statute of limitations. However, the length of time to file charges are dependant on state laws. Therefore, an individual can be charged at any time before the statute of limitations expires.

Typically, the statute of limitations is three years for a felony. This time can be longer for sex, fraud, and murder cases. Usually, the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor is one year. For murder, there is no time limit.

Felony Arraignment

After being arrested on suspicion of having committed a crime, a person will have their first court date. This is called an arraignment, the court proceeding at which a criminal defendant is formally told of the charges against them. At this stage, a defendant also enters a plea to the charges.

In cases where an arraignment is not set for months, the defendant’s attorney may petition the court to dismiss the charges. The judge will then review the cause of the delay to decide whether the delay was reasonable.

If it is determined to be unreasonable, the charges will be dismissed. Otherwise, an arraignment date will be set, and the legal process will proceed.

How Long After Indictment Does Arraignment Happen?

Following an arrest, arraignment must occur within a reasonable time, typically 48 to 72 hours, according to the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the defendant the right to a speedy trial. 

How Long Can a Case Be Pending?

If there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute an individual, the case will become pending. When a case is pending, the statute of limitations will determine how long it will stay open. Generally, the statute of limitations for most felonies is three years.

How Long Can a Case Stay Inactive?

A case will go inactive if no further action can be taken. This is common when the defendant fails to appear to court, and a judgment cannot be passed. If a case becomes inactive, it is removed from the court docket and a warrant may be issued. In rare instances, a prosecutor may decide not to proceed with the case.

If a warrant is issued for failure to appear to court, it is likely a bench warrant. Bench warrants never expire, and there is no statute of limitations. Therefore, an inactive case can stay inactive forever if a bench warrant was issued. 

Entering a Plea

At the arraignment, the defendant will be asked to enter a plea to the charges. The defendant can plead not guilty, guilty, or no contest.

A not-guilty plea places the burden on the state to prove the accused committed the crime. A defendant can change a not guilty plea to guilty at a later time.

Entering a not-guilty plea will take a case in a different direction. After entering the plea, a judge will determine the requirements for the defendant to be released, pending the ongoing investigation. A defendant may be released on their recognizance, monetary bail, or held until trial.

The decision on releasing the accused will depend on whether the defendant presents a danger to the community, their criminal record, how long they have been in the community, and their ties to it. Additional factors include, whether they are employed, their employment history, and if they have a record of failing to appear to court.

Finally, the judge will set a date for the defendant’s next appearance. The next date may be a preliminary hearing if at least one of the charges is a felony, or a pretrial hearing if the charge is a misdemeanor.

If a guilty plea is entered, the judge will establish that the defendant understands their rights and the consequences for pleading guilty. Judges will do this to ensure that the defendant understands that little can be done to change a guilty plea once entered into court records. The judge may sentence the defendant at that time if it is a minor crime, such as disorderly conduct.

A no contest plea may be entered. This is typical if the defendant’s legal representation and the prosecution come to a plea agreement. This plea is also common to prevent the admission of guilt from being used in a civil case, typically filed by victims seeking to collect damages.

If a defendant pleads no contest, they acknowledge that the prosecutor has enough evidence to prove they committed the crime, but there is no admission of guilt. In such circumstances, the court proceedings will continue as if an individual had pled guilty.

How Long Can A Felony Case Last?

The length of a felony case will vary. The defendant has a right to a speedy trial, so the length of the case should ideally, reflect what a defendant wants. In many cases, a felony case can take months and in some cases, years. Depending on the complexity of the crime and defense tactics, a case can be drawn out for long periods. However, drawn-out court cases are expensive and difficult to sustain. In the end, a sentence may still need to be served to move on.

Statute Of Limitations

The statute of limitations is a legally defined period where legal action can be taken against an individual for a crime committed. The time frame will vary based on the level of the crime and the state laws where the crime was committed.

How Long Can a Misdemeanor Case Stay Open?

Usually, the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor is generally one to two years. However, it depends on the level of the crime and the state laws where the crime is committed.

How Long Can a Felony Case Stay Open?

If the crime committed is a felony, the statute of limitations is typically three years in most states. However, it does depend on the state where the crime is committed. The time can be longer for sex, fraud, and murder cases. States will classify felonies according to seriousness. A check on the state in question will be necessary to determine the time limit for a particular felony. If you are curious about your state laws and the statute of limitations for certain crimes, visit this link for more information. 

The purpose of the statute of limitations is to ensure that convictions occur only on evidence, physical or eyewitness, which has not deteriorated over time. If the statute of limitations runs out before a conviction, the accused is free.

The statute of limitations requires the accused to remain in the state, gainfully employed, and “visible.” For accused living openly, legal authorities have a certain amount of time to discover them and bring them in for trial. The statute runs only while the accused is residing in the state where the crime was committed.

If the accused moves to a different state for any amount of time, the clock will stop. The clock can restart only when the individual moves back to the state.

If the accused is living as a fugitive, out of state, or in hiding, the statute of limitations is suspended. When they return to the state, the statute begins running again.

The clock on the statute of limitations begins on the date the crime was committed. Even if the time limit has expired, it is up to the defendant and their attorney to raise the issue.

In cases where a victim does not come forward until a later date, the accusation must still be made within the statute of limitations. Even if new laws have been passed after the crime was committed, the law at the time of commision will stand.

Have More Questions?

Having a competent defense attorney who will fight for a fair trial is extremely important, but being informed and active will aid in a well-prepared defense. 

If you have any legal questions, we strongly encourage you to get a free legal consultation today.

The staff at are not lawyers. If you have questions about any ongoing legal case, it is best to contact an attorney who is familiar with the law where the alleged crime was charged and can be done affordably here. This blog post is meant for informational purposes only and may not reflect the laws in your state. 

So what do you think about this blog post about how long a felony case can stay open? What is your experience with the lengthy felony process? Please tell us in the comments below.

About the author

After earning his MBA from Benedictine University, Ron was looking for a new challenge and stumbled on the idea of helping the formerly incarcerated.

Using what he learned, Ron developed this website as a free resource and has worked with his team​ to continue answering questions for those in need.

7 thoughts on “How Long Can a Felony Case Stay Open?”

  1. Hello there I have a friend that is in jail now and has been for a while now and has not gotten her arraignment yet, while being in prison. She has been charged with primary crime: Larceny over $1000(Principal) and how does you apply for a Public defender, she has written the DA in Charlotte Nc , but has not heard back by mail in prison, how can I help her as being a next friend? She is indigent while in prison! What are the next steps to take in this felony charge?

  2. The actual wording of the 5th amendment is “presentment OR indictment of a Grand Jury” not as you quoted “presentment OF a Grand Jury…” FYI

  3. 02/25/2017 I received citation for “speeding” and “driving on suspended” in a company automobile not registered in my name. I Missed arraignment on 05/17/2017. have failure to appear. Case status: DA moved DOS to misdemeanor criminal court. Judge entered a plea of Guilty/No Contest at hearing after I didn’t show. Does CA vehicle § 16073 Exempt me from suspension? Thank You

  4. Can a person get convicted of a level 4 felony burglary of a dwelling Delta firearms just based upon the person saying they think it was that other person there’s no evidence keeps getting postponed it’s been over 3 years in December and still hasn’t went to trial

  5. “If the statute of limitations runs out before a conviction, the accused is free.”

    This article is written in a way that implies that the above quoted concept applies during pending trial/during prosecution. Meaning the statute of limitation clock do not -stop- at charging/arresting the defendant.

    So I want to be clear with my question.

    If a defendant allegedly committed a crime August 2015,….that crime have a statute of limitation of 5 years,. …the prosecution arrested the defendant May 2018,… Defendant was released within 24 hours or arrest, .. now pending trial,…. It is now December 2020 and trial is still pending after prosecution offered numerous plea deal (at least 5 by now). Do the statute of limitation issue apply in this scenario? What is the case law that confirm that?

  6. I’m a New Yorker, I was once in the trenches of drug addiction, gangs,homelessness, overdoses, real life cops n robbers , no a real life COPS show…. I’ve been clean 8 years but still know alot of people from that lifestyle. (I recently split with him on good terms) BUT!!! My boyfriends supplier got a new workers when they quit during the pandemic, this kid was like the Michael Jordan of drug sales. Now even though my boyfriend and his brother quit selling still hung out, One day the boys swept them up while in the car, the supplier (my boyfriends best friend/partner) gives the new worker the package, immediately cops were everywhere, the worker shoved 40 bundles under the car seat plus more in his book bag, a variety of drugs, and whatever…. They found out that the supplier has been under investigation for maybe close to a year, but for some reason my boyfriend thinks he’s cool, that they (police) will know he quit working and they aren’t even going to Question him or bother him. They will give him a pass for not selling anymore… is it me or is he in serious denial. Can someone give me a couple different possible scenarios , ideas to protect myself and daughter( we only were there, nothing to be charged for or anything, I think. Could they question me? What possible charges might he face when the hammer falls. What all could my boyfriend be charged with, possibly if any

  7. How can the one who got released Scott free without a single charge or anything walk around town all day long past the police station day in and day out with a warrant for his arrest and still nothing is done how does one accomplish what seems to be the impossible while my fiance becomes the scape goat and one with our free man’s charges Now? And where exactly is there justice in that and if that’s what our justice system has become how exactly do the rest of us tip the scales in our favor


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