The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that California’s 1994 law removing the statute of limitations retroactively for sex abuse criminal cases was unconstitutional. Ruling 5-4 in Stogner v. California, the majority based their decision on a 205-year-old precedent dealing with the Constitution’s “ex post facto” provision. The 1994 law removed the statue of limitations and allowed the prosecution of cases where the statute of limitations had already run out. Justices Breyer, Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, and Ginsburg asserted in their majority opinion that this retroactive removal of the statute of limitations violates the constitution’s “ex post facto” provision. The ruling does not apply to crimes where the statute of limitations had yet to run out and does not apply to crimes committed after the law was enacted in 1994.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the dissenting opinion, argued that “ex post facto” deals with changing the definition or parameters of a criminal act or adjusting penalties and not to filing periods (ie., statute of limitations). The law does not change “the fact that the law forbade the act when it was done.” The dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas, supported the state’s concerns that victims of childhood abuse endure continued suffering and often delay reporting because of fear and manipulation by the offender and because they often have difficulty facing the trauma.
Unfortunately, the result of the court’s ruling is that hundreds of accused and some already convicted sex offenders, including a number of clergy, will be released from prison. A spokeswoman for the California Attorney General told the San Francisco Chronicle that an estimated 800 alleged child molesters have been prosecuted under the law, but they have yet to determine how many fall under the rubric of being retroactive. The Marin Independent Journal reported victims still have the option of filing civil lawsuits without a statute of limitation. The Washington Post found that the decision will have little effect on other states because California is the only state with such a law, but federal prosecutions under a similar provision in the USA Patriot Act dealing with terrorism offenses will likely be nullified.