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U.S. Supreme Court: Reviving Expired Statute of Limitations Violates Ex Post Facto

U.S. Supreme Court: Reviving Expired Statute of Limitations Violates Ex Post Facto Clause

Reversing the California Court of Appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California's recent law reviving criminal liability for previously time-barred prosecutions violated the Constitutional proscription against ex post facto laws.

Catering to public outrage against child molesters, the California Legislature in 1993 enacted a revised statute of limitations for such crimes - Penal Code (PC) §803(g). In place of the previous general three-year felony statute of limitations, §803(g) permitted sex crimes against children to be prosecuted within one year of the victim's report to the police. Moreover, in a 1996 amendment (PC §803(g)(3)(A)), the Legislature acknowledged that it intended such retroactivity to apply regardless of how old the offense was.

In 1998, based upon these intervening new laws, Marion Stogner was indicted for such crimes occurring between 1955 and 1973 - 40 to 22 years after the previous statutes of limitations had expired. After the trial court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed the denial (Stogner v. Superior Ct. (2001) 93 Cal.App.4th 1229), Stogner petitioned the high court on writ of certiorari, claiming his indictment was unconstitutional under the Ex Post Facto and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

A divided 5 - 4 Court held that three factors, taken together here, produced the kind of retroactivity that the Constitution forbids: (1) creation of a new criminal limitations period, (2) permitting prosecutions that the passage of time had previously barred, and (3) enacting such a statute after prior limitations periods had expired.

The Court first relied upon its venerable 1798 ex post facto precedent in Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386. Interpreting U.S. Const. Art. I, §9, cl.3 [federal government] and Art. I, § 10, cl. I [states], the Court noted that liberty is protected by preventing governments from enacting statutes with "manifestly unjust and oppressive" retroactive effects. Citing precedent, the Court observed others had described such retroactivity of a lately revised statute of limitations period as "unfair and dishonest," a denial of "fair warning" and a failing of the government "to play by its own rules." The Court noted such retroactive laws invite "arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation," "violent acts which might grow out of the feelings of the moment" - such as California's PC §§803(g) and (g)(3)(A).

Second, in reviewing 18th century British Parliament precedent - from whence our ex post facto jurisprudence stems - the Court noted the prohibition recognized against new punishments "where the party was not [previously], by law, liable to any punishment." This category, including any law that "aggravates a crime" or "makes it greater than it was, when committed," exemplifies the evil of California's §803(g) because it creates a "forfeiture or disability, not incurred in the ordinary course of law."

Third, the Court reviewed approvingly a litany of historical interpretations of the Ex Post Facto Clause that forbade resurrection of a time-barred prosecution.

In sum, the Court held that California's law subjecting Stogner to prosecution long after the state had, in effect, granted him amnesty, was "unfair" and accordingly reversed the California Court of Appeal. The dissent would not have given Calder such weight, and morally criticized the majority's view as "disregard[ing] the interests of those victims of child abuse who have found the courage to face their accusers and bring them to justice."

Indeed, a disturbing consequence of the Stogner ruling is that a sizeable number of lately discovered long-suppressed child molestation cases will now go unprosecuted. These include an estimated 1,000 molestations over the past 60 years in the Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church alone. And within the criminal justice system, examples include Calvin Eugene Moore, a former Fresno, California juvenile-hall guard turned Baptist pastor, whose charges for alleged abuse 20 years ago have now been dropped and who will soon return to work as a juvenile-corrections officer, and former Orange County, California Superior Court Judge Ronald Kline, accused of a 1979 molestation, whose charges have recently been dropped.

But as USC Law School Professor Erwin Chemerinsky reflected on Stogner, "[a]lthough providing for the prosecution of sex offenders is a crucial government interest, it does not justify a law that violates the Ex Post Facto Clause." See: Stogner v. California, 155 L.Ed.2nd 194, 123 S.Ct. 1382 (2003).

Additional Sources: Seattle Times, San Francisco Daily Journal

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Related legal case

Stogner v. California




537 U.S. 1231; 123 S. Ct. 1382; 155 L. Ed. 2d 194; 2003 U.S.

March 3, 2003, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: Stogner v. Superior Court, 93 Cal. App. 4th 1229, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 37, 2001 Cal. App. LEXIS 2198 (Cal. App. 1st Dist., 2001)

JUDGES: [*1] Rehnquist, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer.

OPINION: The motion of the Solicitor General for leave to participate in oral argument as amicus curiae and for divided argument is granted.