Court Cases; Other States laws/regulations; Connecticut laws/regulations;

OLR Research Report

July 18, 2003




By: Susan Price-Livingston, Associate Attorney

You asked for a summary of the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision declaring unconstitutional a California law that revived prosecutions for child sexual abuse crimes after a prior statute of limitations had expired. You also wanted to know what Connecticut laws may be affected by the ruling.

The Office of Legislative Research cannot give legal opinions and this report should not be considered such.


In Stogner v. California, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled that a law extending a criminal statute of limitations after the existing limitations period expires violates the U. S. Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause when it is applied to revive a previously time-barred prosecution (123 S. Ct. 2446 (2003)). The case arose from the 1998 trial and conviction of Marion Stogner for sexually abusing his daughters between 1955 and 1973. Justice Breyer delivered the Court’s opinion, joined by justices Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, and Ginsberg. His analysis turned on the nature of the harms that California’s law created, past Court decisions, and the long line of authority holding that a law of this type violates the Ex Post Facto Clause.

Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion, joined by justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas. In his view, the law was permissible because it (1) did not criminalize previously innocent conduct, (2) limited the punishment the prosecutor could seek to that authorized by law at the time the offense was committed, and (3) did not alter the government’s burden to establish the elements of the crime. He also disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of prior cases.

At least two Connecticut statutes potentially authorize prosecutions like the one disapproved in Stogner. PA 00-87 eliminated the five-year statute of limitations for first-degree escape (codified at CGS 53a-193). And PA 00-80 increased the limitations period for the six most serious sexual assault crimes, in many cases by 15 years, when DNA evidence is available and the victim notifies the police or a prosecutor within five years of its commission (codified at CGS 53a-193b). In both cases, the legislature made the extended limitations periods available to offenses committed anytime, including those where a shorter statutory period governing prosecutions at the time the offenses were committed had already expired.

The press has also reported that attorneys representing Michael Skakel in the appeal from his 2002 conviction for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley may argue that Stogner requires reversal and dismissal of the charge. Skakel argued unsuccessfully at trial that the prosecution was barred by the five-year limitations period contained in CGS 54-193. The trial judge rejected this argument, ruling that the five-year statute of limitations in the pre-1976 law did not apply to murder prosecutions. He concluded that a 1976 amendment to 54-193, which expressly removed any time limitation for capital felonies, did not bar Skakel’s prosecution (State v. Skakel, 31 Conn. L. Rptr. 125 (Super. Ct. 2001)).


In 1993, California enacted a new criminal statute of limitations governing sex-related child abuse crimes. The new law permitted prosecutions after the period specified in prior statutes of limitations had expired if (1) the victim reported the abuse to the police, (2) independent evidence clearly and convincingly corroborates the victim’s allegation, and (3) the prosecution was begun within one year after the victim’s report (Cal. Penal Code Ann. 803(g)).

Marion Stogner was prosecuted and convicted in 1998 of sexually abusing his minor daughters between 1955 and 1973. Without the new statute of limitations, the prosecutor could not have brought the case to trial. The three-year limitations period in effect at the time the offenses were allegedly committed had expired at least 22 years before the 1998 prosecution began.

The Court concluded that the application of the extended statute of limitations to Stogner violated the U. S. Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause, which prevents governments from enacting statutes with “manifestly unjust and oppressive” retroactive effects (Art. I, 10, cl. 1). Reviving prosecutions after the statute of limitations has expired deprives the defendant of fair warning, which might have led him to preserve exculpatory evidence and, by allowing legislatures to pick and choose when to act retroactively, risks both arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation and erosion of the separation of powers. Language in the Court’s decision suggests that the outcome would have been different if the shorter statute of limitations had not expired when the extended period superceded it.

The Court also found the California law proscribed by two categories of laws designated as ex post facto in Calder v. Bull (3 Dall. 386 (1798)):

Califiornia’s law fell within the first category because, prior to its passage, Stogner could not have been prosecuted. The new law thus “aggravated” his crime or made it greater than it was when committed in the sense that it inflicted punishment for past criminal conduct that (when the new law was enacted) did not trigger any such liability.

The Court found that the law also fell within the second category because it resurrected a prosecution after the relevant statute of limitations had expired. As applied to Stogner, this eliminated what had been a conclusive presumption forbidding prosecution, thereby permitting him to be convicted based on evidence that was legally insufficient under the laws in effect when the crime was committed.

The Court found its reasoning consistent with earlier cases and the longstanding, unanimous view of legal commentators that such laws were barred by the Ex Post Facto Clause.


It appears likely that in light of Stogner, Connecticut courts will restrict the retroactivity of the extended statutes of limitations in PA 00-87 and 00-80. Prosecutions for offenses committed after its passage will not be affected, nor will those where the prior law’s shorter statute of limitations had not run prior to the acts’ effective dates (May 26 and May 16, 2000, respectively). But it is likely that courts will bar prosecutions of offenses in cases where the shorter statute of limitations had expired before the new law went into effect.

SP-L: ro