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New DNA Evidence Can Reset Statute of Limitations, 7th Rules

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 29, 2015 9:57 AM

An armed robber who was discovered and prosecuted years after the crime has failed in his challenge to his conviction. Pascal Sylla, convicted in 2013 of committing a 2003 robbery in Anderson, Indiana, challenged a federal law which extended statutes of limitations when new DNA evidence links an individual to the felony.

That law, which essentially resets the statutory clock when a DNA connection is discovered, is not unconstitutional, the Fourth Circuit ruled on Thursday.

DNA Matches, but Almost Too Late

The robbery of the Madison County Federal Credit Union began with the robber ordering a customer to the ground. The ski mask clad armed man then jumped behind the teller window. The customer, who happened to be the town's Assistant Chief of Police, jumped up and opened fire. In the shoot-off that ensued, the robber was hit once, but managed to flee.

For seven years the identity of the robber remained unknown, until new DNA evidence connected Pascal Sylla to the 2003 robbery. That connection came after Sylla's DNA was entered into the Bureau of Prison's DNA index after he pleaded guilty to a separate bank robbery. The match indicated Sylla was the robber in the heist -- but the statute of limitations had ran out, five years before his 2013 indictment.

Federal DNA Tolling Statute

Sylla was still charged and convicted for violating federal robbery laws, despite the statute of limitations. On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, he claimed that the trial was invalid since the federal tolling statute was unconstitutionally vague.

Under the federal DNA tolling statute, statutes of limitations are voided when new DNA evidence ties someone to a felony, so long as the time elapsed between the DNA testing and the prosecution is equal or less than the otherwise applicable limits. Essentially, the law switches the statute of limitation from the time of the crime until prosecution to the time of DNA identification until prosecution.

The Seventh rejected Sylla's vagueness argument. A criminal statute can be void for vagueness when it doesn't provide fair notice of what is forbidden or allows for arbitrary and erratic enforcement. Here, the federal DNA law did no such thing -- the robbery remained a robbery, and Sylla couldn't have known it wasn't forbidden. All that changed was the applicable time limit for prosecution.

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