From NY Times, today. This article
is online at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/26/politics/26CND-MOLE.html
Erasing Limits on Prosecuting Child Molesters Is Ruled Illegal
By DAVID STOUT
WASHINGTON, June 26 — The Supreme Court dealt a serious defeat today to prosecutors who pursue suspects accused of molesting children, ruling 5 to 4 that the government cannot erase statutes of limitations retroactively.
The decision struck down a California law that allowed for prosecutions of people accused of committing sex crimes years before. The state enacted the law several years ago to make it possible to prosecute people accused of committing such crimes against children years, even decades, earlier.
But the court said today that the United States Constitution bars states from reviving legal deadlines that have already expired. Those deadlines, or statutes of limitations, vary by crime and from state to state. The most serious crimes have the longest statutes of limitations, and murder has none.
"We believe that this retroactive application of a later-enacted law is unfair," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority in the case of Marion Stogner, who was charged in 1998 with having molested his children almost a half-century before. Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with him.
The case has been closely watched because of its implications in prosecuting priests accused of child-molesting years in the past. But it will have repercussions in prosecuting many other kinds of crimes, and it may affect laws across the country.
Until the mid-1990's, sex crimes were like most other criminal offenses under California law and could not be prosecuted after three years had elapsed.
But concerned that the inability of young victims of sex crimes to come forward promptly was permitting their tormentors to escape prosecution, the California Legislature extended the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children.
Under the law voided by the justices today, a prosecution could be brought at any time, as long as less than a year had passed since an adult gave evidence to the authorities of having been the victim of a serious sexual offense before the age of 18.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy dissented, declaring that California ought to be able to punish serious sex offenses against children. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with him.
Mr. Stogner's two adult daughters told the police that he had molested them from 1955 to 1973. They made the accusations to police officers who were investigating accusations of child abuse elsewhere in the extended family.
The California Supreme Court upheld the state law in 1999. Mr. Stogner's lawyers attacked his prosecution on Constitutional grounds, and he had not gone to trial. The high court's ruling today may have made it impossible for prosecutors to try him.
The Constitution bars Congress and the states from enacting laws that make an act criminal in retrospect, or ex post facto. A 1798 ruling by the Supreme Court interpreted that prohibition in a way still regarded as definitive.
The court declared in that 1978 ruling, Calder v. Bull, that legislators could not criminalize an act that was not a crime when it was committed; could not "aggravate" a crime, or make it more serious than it was when committed; could not make the punishment greater than it was when the crime was committed, and could not alter the legal rules of evidence to make it easier for the government to obtain a conviction.
But how does reviving an expired statute of limitations fit into that framework, if it does? That is a question the high court was wrestling with since arguments were heard in the Stogner case on March 31.
Justice Ginsburg was clearly uneasy over the retroactivity, observing during the arguments that "it would also apply to pickpocketing."
Supporters of the California law have maintained that crimes against children are in a special category, and that the state was recognizing its "compelling interest" in protecting them, as several child-protection groups wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the state.
A longer statute of limitations is entirely appropriate for crimes in which the victims often wait years to tell of the wrongs committed against them, the brief said, asserting that the law "prevents offenders from escaping prosecution based solely on the fact that their victims may be shamed, intimidated or otherwise prevented from reporting abuse until well into adulthood."
On the other hand, criminal defense lawyers have argued that if laws like California's are allowed to stand, they could cause a profound loss of faith in the criminal justice system.
"Although understanding whether one has committed offenses such as child molestation or robbery is usually (but not always) fairly clear cut, people are often quite uncertain whether they have committed other crimes," the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice asserted in a friend-of-the-court brief.
"Given the morass of environmental and tax laws, for instance, many business people depend on limitations periods for peace of mind regarding past conduct and in planning for the future."