On December 10, 2020 the United States Supreme Court decided the case of U.S. v. Briggs. The principal issue concerned whether the applicable statute of limitations barred the defendants’ prosecution for rape. These were three consolidated cases that presented the same issue.
Justice Alito wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part: The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) has long provided that a military offense, “punishable by death, may be tried and punished at any time without limitation.” 10 U. S. C. §843(a). Other military offenses are subject to a 5-year statute of limitations. §843(b). Respondents are three military service members, each convicted of rape. When they were charged, the UCMJ provided that rape could be “punished by death.” §920(a) (1994 ed.). Because this Court held that the Eighth Amendment forbids a death sentence for the rape of an adult woman, Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, respondents argue 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. Agreeing, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces set aside their convictions.
Respondents’ prosecutions for rape under the UCMJ were timely. Respondents contend that the UCMJ phrase “punishable by death” means capable of punishment by death when all applicable law is taken into account. By contrast, the Government sees the phrase as something of a term of art, meaning capable of punishment by death under the penalty provisions of the UCMJ. For three reasons, the phrase’s context—appearing in a statute of limitations provision for prosecutions under the UCMJ—weighs heavily in favor of the Government’s interpretation. First, the UCMJ is a uniform code. As such, a natural referent for a statute of limitations provision within the UCMJ is other law in the UCMJ itself.
The Government’s position seems more logical here. Otherwise, too much guesswork would be involved in interpreting a given statute of limitations.