Supreme Court Considers Sex Crime Limits
By Gina Holland
Associated Press, carried in FederalNewsRadio.com [Washington DC)]
March 31, 2003
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court took up the subject of old sex crimes Monday in a case that could determine when statutes of limitations can be erased and prosecutions begun.
Although the case involved a California man's alleged abuse of his daughter, demonstrators outside the court included people arguing against time limits on charges against priests accused of abuse.
The justices are considering whether California violated the constitutional rights of a man by prosecuting him in 2001 on charges of molesting his daughters that began almost 50 years ago.
The time limit had run out for such charges, but California changed the statute of limitations in 1994 for some sex offenses. Hundreds of people have been convicted under the law, after child victims came forward to report crimes.
Other states too have lengthened deadlines for molestation. Critics say that California went too far, by reviving charges already outdated by statutes of limitations.
Defendant Marion Stogner's lawyer, Roberto Najera, said the state changed the rules after witnesses were dead and evidence lost.
The justices will decide before July if Stogner was wrongly charged retroactively. The retired paper plant worker came to the attention of police investigating molestation allegations against his sons.
The court's conservatives generally seemed satisfied with the California law.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told Stogner's lawyer he was trying to shoehorn the facts of this case into factors that the Supreme Court has said are not allowed in prosecutions.
"Whether comfortable or not, I believe it fits," Najera responded.
At one point Justice Anthony Kennedy interrupted: "I just don't understand your theory."
Some of the court's more liberal members seemed bothered by the law.
Justice Stephen Breyer said that "memories (of abuse) can be revived through hypnosis, which is sometimes inaccurate."
Statutes of limitations vary by state and by crime, as short as one year for minor wrongdoing to no limit for murder.
"After a certain amount of time, it's too hard to defend yourself. We fear that people might not be able to find witnesses, documents to aid in their defense," said Jeffrey Fisher, who filed a brief at the court on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, supporting Stogner.
A Bush administration lawyer argued Monday that the law should be upheld. In court papers, the administration said a ruling for Stogner may weaken parts of the USA Patriot Act, which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in terrorism cases involving hijackings, kidnappings, bombings and biological weapons.
After the argument, a handful of abuse victims stood in front of the court with signs that read "No Time Limits for Justice" and "Protect People Not Crooks."
"Predators should be held accountable, no matter how long it takes," said Mark Serrano, with the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Since the Roman Catholic Church became embroiled in a sex abuse scandal last year, more than 300 priests either resigned or retired because of allegations of wrongdoing. Some of the people who attended the session were pursuing criminal charges against their alleged abusers.
There was no discussion in the court about sex crimes. California lawyer Janet Gaard began her arguments talking about new evidence of serious offenses against children.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that the case was not limited to the one subject. "It could be pickpocketing," she said.
The case is Stogner v. California, 01-1757.
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