Is retroactive legislation constitutional?

There’s some talk in Pennsylvania following the report on child molestation and the clergy of introducing retroactive legislation to abolish time limits on prosecution to enable victims to seek justice even though the statute of limitations has expired for the crimes. Would that be constitutional? Can any retroactive legislation be constitutional?

SCOTUS allowed the Lautenberg Amendment to include individuals that were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence before the law was even passed. Thus, some retroactive legislation is apparently constitutional and not considered ex post facto per SCOTUS.

Ex post facto laws are unconstitutional i.e. you can’t make something a crime that wasn’t a crime at the time it happened. But that’s not what’s going on here. Child molestation was a crime already, and it still is today. All that’s changing is the length of time during which the government has to prosecute the crime.

Consider a fictional person named Bill Stickers. He commits a crime, does something that is already illegal. The statute of limitations for that particular crime is 7 years, hence the government has to prosecute Bill for his crime within 7 years or not at all. But even after the 7 years are up, it is still true that Bill Stickers actually did commit a crime. Essentially, Bill has been given a Get Out Of Jail Free card. If the legislature rewrites the statute, it could effectively revoke Bill’s card. And then, Bill Stickers will be prosecuted.

No, the PA legislature cannot extend the Statute of Limitations to allow criminal prosecution if the SOL in place at the time the crime was committed has already expired. This has already been tried by the CA legislature, and the Supreme Court ruled it was an unconstitutional ex post facto law.

Just to note: That was a 5-4 decision carried by the so-called liberals. Given the shift in the court, it’s possible that this would be overturned if examined again. But yeah, a lower court would probably have to rule as unconstitutional a law that changed the SoL.

It’s my understanding that, for you to be subject to a revised law extending the statute of limitations, the law extending it must have been passed while you are still subject to the original law.

So, your example would be incorrect. If Bill’s crime can be prosecuted within 7 years, and he is not prosecuted within those 7 years, you can’t then apply a new law to him which extends the statute of limitations if it is passed outside the original 7 year window.

BUT…if the 7 year statute is extending to, say 15 years, but that law is passed within 7 years of Bill’s original crime, then the new extended statute would apply to him.

Even conservative judges may be hesitant to mess with the limitations. In both CA and PA to the limitations are fairly short but they would avoid setting a precedent that could allow endless extensions.

But there’s no constitutional requirement to have a statute of limitations at all, is there? If a state never introduces a statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions, that’s fine; consequently a system of provisional or contingent limitations would seem acceptable in principle, provided its not applied in a way that denies due process or equal protection.

Still, once there is one, there is one.

I’d say extending the limit does affect due process. But I’m not on the SC. The CA case was based on ex post facto, I don’t know if other aspects of statute of limitations were addressed.

I do think the reason the SCOTUS might review this and come to a different conclusion is because the conservative majority also has a Statist leaning. But even a Statist might balk at the ability of a state to change it’s laws in an ex post facto manner that has the potential to affect due process. States could extend limitations by decades to bring a case that can no longer be practically be defended because of the passage of time.

But this is now out of GQ territory and discussing the implications of factual answers annoys some people.

I think Moriarty’s distinction here is very important. Someone that commits a crime and manages to not have it noticed for the current statute of limitations can breathe somewhat easier and not have to hide what they did. While obviously one should not brag about getting away with a crime because of the statute of limitations, it’s possible that a person simply no longer hides it when they could have continued to do so. There may be evidence that would never have seen the light of day if it had been keep it secret because of being subject to possible criminal penalties. If someone goes from being unable to be prosecuted for something they did in the past, does nothing else criminal, and then can be prosecuted by later action of the legislature, it would prejudice those that believed that they didn’t have to cover it up. This becomes a little more morally ambiguous when the crime being considered is not something that universally regarded as a crime, such as marijuana smoking or participation in deviant sexual activities with fully consenting adults. If people might come out after the statute of limitations has expired and stated they committed those crimes and nothing bad happened because of it and try to get the law changed, if the statute of limitations could be retroactively extended they would be less likely to speak out about the injustice of the bad law.

Good point, glowacks. I think this is a key separation from things like Lautenberg.

If your actions were okay (providing evidence of your crime after SOL ran out) before the law was passed, they should still be okay after a new law was passed.

Let me start by saying that I have great sympathy for the victims of these atrocities and little sympathy for the perpetrators or those who participated in covering up the abuse.

That being said, exposing alleged criminals to prosecution via an ex post facto law is an extremely steep slippery slope that could easily be abused.

It would seem to me that a civil action, as has been the case in the past, is a better way to pursue the perpetrators in cases like this. It will, of course, not take away the pain of the victims, but it is a better way than a law setting a very dangerous precident.

The Constitution doesn’t say anything about statutes of limitations specifically, because the Constitution is really vague about all sorts of things. But it does guarantee a right to a speedy trial, and one could argue that a statute of limitations is one manifestation of that right.

“What? I would never have raped little Jimmy if I knew the statute of limitations was 15 years!?”

I thought too that at least for civil action (and criminal?) some interpretation of the Statute of Limitations applied to the fact that the clock started ticking once the offense had become known to authorities (or in the case of some offenses against children, when they turned 18?)

The logic of the SoL is simple - how would the average citizen possibly defend themselves against “what were you doing on the night of Sept. 16th, 2003?” Physical evidence gets destroyed (all those phone records or gas station receipts, perhaps) and eyewitness testimony becomes blurred - “are you sure it’s him from 2003, or he’s familiar because you saw him every week since 2011?”

Actually, right now the PA SOL is pretty long - criminal charges until the victim is 30 years old, civil until the victim is 50. And they’re trying to extend that to 50/unlimited.

The issue has nothing to do with whether a long SOL is constitutional - murder in general doesn’t have an SOL at all - the issue is whether it’s constitutional to reset an SOL that’s already expired.

As I understand it, at the federal level, the statute of limitations for sex assault extends to the life of the victim (and sometimes beyond). If there was a way to get these priests into federal court, they are still able to be prosecuted. The issue is jurisdiction - Could the transfer of priests across state lines make it a federal issue? What about if they ever took trips out of state with the kids?

If I’m in Congress, I would be considering laws to make churches subject to federal jurisdiction, so that any assault on church property would be a federal crime.

Where does Congress get the power to criminalise conduct in churches?

Here’s the other point. Memories get crappier and crappier the longer they exist.

“Currently, the statute of limitations law allows victims of child sex abuse to come forward with criminal allegations until they are 50 years old. Victims can file civil claims until they are age 30. Most of the allegations in the grand jury report go back decades; many of the victims are in their 60s and 70s – meaning they are years past the time when criminal charges can be filed.”

Now in this case there are also contemporary paper records, but the testimony of those abused 30 years ago is frankly worthless.