Facts of the Case
In 2014, a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone found Michael Briggs guilty of rape in violation of Article 120(a), Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U.S.C. § 920(a) (2000), for conduct that occurred nine years earlier, in 2005. The UCMJ allows for a military offense that is punishable by death to be “tried and punished at any time without limitation.” In contrast, other military offenses are subject to a five-year statute of limitations.
Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977), which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited a death sentence for rape of an adult woman, Briggs argued on appeal that rape was not “punishable by death” and thus was subject to the five-year statute of limitations for non-capital crimes. The United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (AFCCA) rejected his challenge because Briggs had not raised the statute of limitations claim at trial. The court therefore affirmed the finding and sentence of the judge below. Briggs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Reviewing for plain error, the C.A.A.F. reversed the lower court, finding that the Rules for Courts-Martial R.C.M. 907(b)(2)(B) requires the military judge to inform the accused of the right to assert the statute of limitations. As such, the court found that if the military judge had informed Briggs of a possible statute of limitations defense, he would have sought dismissal.
Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces err in concluding—contrary to its own longstanding precedent—that the Uniform Code of Military Justice allows prosecution of a rape that occurred between 1986 and 2006 only if it was discovered and charged within five years?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces erred in concluding that the five-year statute of limitations applies to the prosecution of rape. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion on behalf of a unanimous (8-0) Court.
The UCMJ exempts offenses “punishable by death” from the statute of limitations for prosecutions. Even though the offense of rape is no longer punishable by death, the context of that phrase implies that the offense itself is still not subject to the statute of limitations that applies to other offenses. First, the UCMJ is a “uniform” code, which means that it generally refers only to other provisions within the UCMJ itself, rather than external sources of law. The “most natural place” to determine whether rape was “punishable by death” and thus exempt from the statute of limitations is the UCMJ itself. Second, statutes of limitations are intended to provide clarity, and having to consider “all applicable law” to determine whether an offense is punishable by death obscures, rather than clarifies, the filing deadline. Finally, it is “unlikely” that lawmakers would want a statute of limitations to refer to judicial interpretations of such provisions, given that the purposes of statutes of limitations differ from the ends served courts’ Eighth Amendment analysis.
Justice Neil Gorsuch authored a concurring opinion to opine that the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear appeals directly from the CAAF but expressing agreement with the majority on the merits.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
featuring Arthur Rizer and Richard Sala
On October 13, 2020, The Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding United States v. Collins...