Friday, January 11, 2002
S.C. Allows Revival of Some Dismissed Child Molestation Cases
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A state law reviving some time-barred child molestation prosecutions may be applied to a case that was previously dismissed where the law in effect when the dismissal became final permits refiling, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Wading through the procedural thicket created by three 1990s legislative efforts to enable prosecution of offenders whose victims waited years to come forward, the high court ruled for prosecutors in one case but for the defendant in another.
One ruling will allow Lake County prosecutors to try Ronald Stacy Bunn for a series of alleged assaults on his then-15-year-old daughter in 1981, something they have been trying to do since 1995. But Placer County authorities struck out in their attempt to try Phillip R. King on four charges dating back to the 1970s.
The cases both involved application of Penal Code Sec. 803(g), which revives prosecutions otherwise barred by the three- or six-year statute of limitations for sex offenses if a complaint is filed “within one year of the date of a report to a law enforcement agency by a person of any age alleging that he or she, while under the age of 18 years, was the victim.”
The statute requires that any such prosecution be based on clear and convincing evidence of substantial sexual conduct and independent corroboration.
The law took effect Jan. 1, 1994. Prosecutors’ efforts to use it, however, ran into statutory and constitutional challenges which drew conflicting rulings from trial courts and appellate panels.
Some courts ruled that the Legislature intended to apply Sec. 803(g) only in cases where the three- or six-year limitation expired after the law took effect. Some held that the revival of time-barred cases was unconstitutional, while some held that the Legislature could, and intended to, apply the new law to cases in which the limitations period had expired before Jan. 1, 1994.
In response to the uncertainty, the Legislature adopted an amendment in 1996, effective Jan. 1, 1997. It expressly provided for retroactive application of the section and revival of otherwise time-barred complaints, and gave prosecutors through June 30, 1997 to file cases in which a victim complained after the new law went into effect but prosecutors didn’t file the case or the case had been dismissed.
The third piece of legislation was an urgency measure, enacted in June 1997, which extended the June 30, 1997 deadline to 180 days from a final determination by the state Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court that retroactive application of the section is constitutional.
The California Supreme Court accepted several cases involving the retroactivity issues in 1995 and 1996, but later dismissed review in all of them in light of the intervening amendments.
In August 1999, the court ruled that retroactive application of the amended statute did not offend the Ex Post Facto clause, in People v. Frazer, 21 Cal.4th 737, and the U.S. Supreme Court later affirmed.
The state high court ruled yesterday that Bunn is subject to prosecution under the 1996 version of the law.
Bunn was originally charged in January 1995, based on a police report made in December 1994. A Lake Superior Court judge dismissed, ruling that the statute could not constitutionally be applied to pre-1994 crimes.
The First District Court of Appeal affirmed. The state Supreme Court denied review on May 21, 1997, but prosecutors refiled the case on June 30, 1997—the last day to do so under the 1996 amendment.
Lake Superior Court Judge David Herrick dismissed, holding that the Legislature violated the separation of powers by purporting to allow prosecutors to refile cases that were previously dismissed by the courts. The Court of Appeal disagreed and reversed.
Justice Marvin Baxter, writing yesterday for the Supreme Court, agreed with the Court of Appeal.
Baxter explained that the separation of powers wasn’t violated because the previous dismissal wasn’t final until after the 1996 amendment became law. He cited Plaut v. Spendthrift Farms, Inc. (1995) 514 U.S. 211, which held that legislation allowing reinstatement of securities fraud suits dismissed under a previous Supreme Court decision was unconstitutional with respect to suits in which the judgment of dismissal was final before the new law took effect.
The separation-of-powers analysis of Plaut, Baxter said, applies under the California Constitution as well.
“When the finality of a judicial determination is limited or conditioned by the terms of a general statute already in effect when the determination is made,” the jurist wrote, “application of the statute according to its terms is but a ‘reasonable,’ and therefore permissible, legislative restriction upon the constitutional function of the judiciary; it does not ‘defeat or materially impair’ that function.”
Applying that analysis to the case of King, Baxter explained, yields a different result.
King, he noted, was charged in 1995 and prevailed in the Court of Appeal based on the retroactivity issue. Review was granted in December 1996 and dismissed in April 1997.
Prosecutors refiled in July 1997, but a Superior Court judge dismissed and the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed.
In King’s case, Baxter explained, the refiling was too late because the deadline under the 1996 law had expired a few days earlier; the 1997 law cannot be applied, Baxter said, because the prior dismissal was final before that measure was enacted.
The cases are People v. Bunn, 02 S.O.S. 96, and People v. King, 02 S.O.S. 107.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company