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December 10, 2020

Supreme Court Decides United States v. Briggs and United States v. Collins

On December 10, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States decided United States v. Briggs and United States v. Collins, holding that three rape prosecutions under the pre-2006 Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) were not subject to a five-year statute of limitations.1

The UCMJ governs the prosecution of military offenses. From 1986 through 2006, Article 43(a) of the UCMJ provided that “any offense punishable by death” could be “tried and punished at any time.” Other military offenses were subject to a five-year statute of limitations. During the relevant time period, rape was punishable by death under Article 120(a) of the UCMJ, but a rape of an adult woman was not punishable by death under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

These cases triggered that conflict in determining whether a rape committed by a service member was “punishable by death” and thus not subject to a five-year statute of limitations. The cases started with three incidents of rape that occurred in 1998, 2000, and 2005. All three defendants were charged more than five years later, after their victims came forward or new evidence came to light. All three defendants were convicted of rape. On appeal, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces overturned the defendants’ convictions, on the theory that rape was not punishable by death because the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed. It held that the phrase “punishable by death” is a term of art referring to offenses that are punishable by death under the UCMJ’s penalty provisions. It reached this conclusion for three reasons. First, the “natural referent for a statute of limitations provision within the UCMJ is other law in the UCMJ itself,” not some other source like the Eighth Amendment. Second, the defendants’ proffered interpretation could lead to considerable uncertainty, given the courts’ evolving precedent on the constitutionality of the death penalty. Finally, “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 Supreme Court’s] Eighth Amendment decisions,” so “it is unlikely that lawmakers would want to tie a statute of limitations” to judicial interpretations of the Eighth Amendment or the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Justice Alito wrote the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Gorsuch wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of these cases.

  1. Congress amended the UCMJ in 2006 to explicitly state that rape, murder, and several other enumerated offenses could be “tried and punished at any time without limitation.” See 10 U.S.C. § 843(a).

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