US Supreme Court Rejects Statute of Limitations for Military Rape
In United States v. Briggs, 592 U. S. ____ (2020), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that there was no time limit for filing rape charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Accordingly, the Court reinstated the convictions of three former military service members.
Facts of the Case
The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) provides that a military offense, “punishable by death, may be tried and punished at any time without limitation.” Other military offenses are subject to a 5-year statute of limitations.
The case revolves around three military service members convicted of rape. When they were charged, the UCMJ provided that rape could be “punished by death.” Because the Supreme Court held Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, 592 (1977) that the Eighth Amendment forbids a death sentence for the rape of an adult woman, respondents argued that they could not, in fact, have been sentenced to death, and therefore the UCMJ’s 5-year statute of limitations applies and bars their convictions. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) agreed that the applicable statute of limitations was five years. Accordingly, it barred the rape convictions of respondents.
Supreme Court’s Decision
By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court reversed. Justice Samuel Alitowrote on behalf of the Court.
As Justice Alito explained, the Respondents maintained that the UCMJ phrase “punishable by death” means capable of punishment by death when all applicable law is taken into account. Meanwhile, the Government characterized the phrase more like a term of art, meaning capable of punishment by death under the penalty provisions of the UCMJ. While the Court acknowledged that there were “reasonable arguments on both sides,” it ultimately sided with the government’s interpretation of the statute. In support, Justice Alito cited three reasons.
First, Justice Alito noted that UCMJ is a uniform code and that “a natural referent for a statute of limitations provision within the UCMJ is other law in the UCMJ itself.” He further explained:
In the context of the UCMJ, therefore, Article 120’s directive that rape could be “punished by death” is the most natural place to look for Congress’s answer to whether rape was “punish- able by death” within the meaning of Article 43(a). We think that is so even if, as respondents argue, the separate prohibition on “cruel or unusual punishment” in Article 55 of the UCMJ would have been held to provide an independent defense against the imposition of the death penalty for rape.
Second, Justice Alito concluded that the Respondents’ interpretation of §843(a) is not the sort of limitations provision that Congress is likely to have chosen. Emphasizing that clarity is an objective for which lawmakers strive when enacting such provisions, Justice Alito noted that the deadline for filing rape charges would be unclear under the Respondents’ interpretation, as it would depend on an unresolved constitutional question about Coker’s application to military prosecutions, on the Supreme Court’s “‘evolving standards of decency’” under the Eighth Amendment, and on whether §855 of the UCMJ independently prohibits a death sentence for rape.
“In short, if we accepted the interpretation of Article 43(a) adopted by the CAAF and defended by respondents, we would have to conclude that this provision set out a statute of limitations that no one could have understood with any real confidence until important and novel legal questions were resolved by this Court,” Justice Alito wrote. “That is not the sort of limitations provision that Congress is likely to have chosen.”
Third, Justice Alito found that the factors that lawmakers are likely to take into account when fixing the statute of limitations for a crime differ significantly from the considerations that underlie the Court’s Eighth Amendment decisions. “[S]ince the ends served by statutes of limitations differ sharply from those served by provisions like the Eighth Amendment or Article 55 of the UCMJ, it is unlikely that lawmakers would want to tie a statute of limitations to judicial interpretations of such provisions,” he wrote.
Based on the above, the Court concluded that that “punishable by death” is a “term of art that is defined by the provisions of the UCMJ specifying the punishments for the offenses it outlaws.” Accordingly, it held that the Respondents’ prosecutions were timely.
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