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Marion Reynolds Stogner vs. California

June 27, 2003

The Supreme Court struck down a California law permitting prosecution of child sexual-abuse cases for which the statute of limitations had expired. Stogner was indicted in 1998 for allegedly abusing his daughters between 1955 and 1973, when the statute of limitations for such offenses was three years.

majority opinion:

*--* By Justice Stephen G. Breyer

Joined by Justices John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor David H. Souter Ruth Bader Ginsburg


The law at issue here ... authorized criminal prosecutions that the passage of time had previously barred. Moreover, it was enacted after prior limitations periods for Stogner's alleged offenses had expired. Do these features of the law, taken together, produce the kind of retroactivity that the Constitution forbids? We conclude that they do.

Judge Learned Hand wrote [in 1928] that extending a limitations period after the state has assured "a man that he has become safe from its pursuit ... seems to most of us unfair and dishonest." In such a case, the government has refused "to play by its own rules."

After (but not before) the original statute of limitations had expired, a party such as Stogner was not "liable to any punishment." California's new statute therefore "aggravated" Stogner's alleged crime, or made it "greater than it was, when committed."

Significantly, a statute of limitations reflects a legislative judgment that, after a certain time, no quantum of evidence is sufficient to convict. And that judgment typically rests, in large part, upon evidentiary concerns -- for example, concern that the passage of time has eroded memories or made witnesses or other evidence unavailable.

Consequently, to resurrect a prosecution after the relevant statute of limitations has expired is to eliminate a ... presumption forbidding prosecution, and thereby to permit conviction on a quantum of evidence ... that ... would have been legally insufficient.

The dissent ignores the potentially lengthy period of time (in this case, 22 years) during which the accused lacked notice that he might be prosecuted and during which he was unaware, for example, of any need to preserve evidence of innocence. Memories fade, and witnesses can die or disappear. Such problems can plague child abuse cases, where recollection after so many years may be uncertain, and "recovered" memories faulty, but may nonetheless lead to prosecutions that destroy families.

We agree that the state's interest in prosecuting child abuse cases is an important one. But there is also a predominating constitutional interest in forbidding the state to revive a long-forbidden prosecution.

In sum, California's law subjects an individual such as Stogner to prosecution long after the state has, in effect, granted an amnesty. "Unfair" seems to us a fair characterization.


*--* By Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

Joined by Justices William H. Rehnquist Clarence Thomas Antonin Scalia


The California Legislature did not change retroactively the description of Stogner's alleged offense so as to subject him to an unprecedented and particularly severe punishment. The only change is that Stogner may now be prosecuted.

The majority seems to suggest that retroactive extension of expired limitations periods is "arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation," but does not attempt to support this accusation. And it could not do so. The California statute can be explained as motivated by legitimate concerns about the continuing suffering endured by the victims of childhood abuse.

The California Legislature noted that "young victims often delay reporting sexual abuse because they are easily manipulated by offenders in positions of authority and trust, and because children have difficulty remembering the crime or facing the trauma it can cause."

The problem the Legislature sought to address is illustrated well by this case. Petitioner's older daughter testified she did not report the abuse because she was afraid of her father and did not believe anyone would help her. After she left petitioner's home, she tried to forget the abuse.

Petitioner's younger daughter did not report the abuse because she was scared. He tried to convince her it was a normal way of life. Even after she moved out of petitioner's house, she was afraid to speak for fear she would not be believed. She tried to pretend she had a normal childhood. It was only her realization that the father continued to abuse other children in the family that led her to disclose the abuse, in order to protect them....

We should consider whether it is warranted to presume that criminals keep calendars so they can mark the day to discard their records or to place a gloating phone call to the victim. The first expectation is minor and likely imaginary; the second is not, but there is no conceivable reason the law should honor it.

When a child molester commits his offense, he is well aware the harm will plague the victim for a lifetime. The victims whose interests [the California law] takes into consideration have been subjected to sexual abuse within the confines of their own homes and by people they trusted and relied upon for protection....

When the criminal has taken distinct advantage of the tender years and perilous position of a fearful victim, it is the victim's lasting hurt, not the perpetrator's fictional reliance, that the law should count the higher. The victims whose cause is now before the court have at last overcome shame and the desire to repress these painful memories. They have reported the crimes so that the violators are brought to justice and harm to others is prevented.

The court now tells the victims their decision to come forward is in vain.

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