Ex Post Facto Laws, Effective Dates, and Legislative Time Travel

by Richard Sweetman and Rebecca Hausmann

You want your bill to take effect on January 1, 2015, but your bill drafter says it’s not possible. Why not?

Because the General Assembly convenes on January 7, 2015, the earliest any bill can be introduced is January 7, 2015. The earliest it could pass both houses of the General Assembly is January 9, 2015. And you can’t make a law travel back in time to apply to dates that occurred before the law was even passed!

Or can you?

Retroactivity and Retrospectivity

Section 11 of article II of the Colorado constitution provides that “No ex post facto law, nor law impairing the obligation of contracts, or retrospective in its operation, or making any irrevocable grant of special privileges, franchises or immunities, shall be passed by the general assembly.” [emphasis added]

However, in Colorado, the courts observe a distinction between retroactive application of law and retrospective application of law. Although the retroactive application of a statute is generally disfavored by the common law and by section 2-4-202, C.R.S., (“A statute is presumed to be prospective in its operation.”), the retroactive application of a civil statute is not necessarily unconstitutional. Retroactively applied civil legislation is unconstitutional only if it is also retrospectively applied. Ficarra v. Dep’t of Regulatory Agencies, Div. of Ins., 849 P.2d 6, 11 (Colo. 1993).

A statute is retrospective if it takes away or impairs vested rights acquired under existing laws or creates a new obligation, imposes a new duty, or attaches a new disability, in respect to transactions or considerations already past. In re Estate of DeWitt, 54 P.3d 849, 854 (Colo. 2002).

The Colorado Supreme Court’s retrospectivity analysis consists of two inquiries. First, the court will consider the “vested right” prong of retrospectivity. Second, if a vested right is not implicated, the court will consider the “new obligation, new duty, or new disability” prong of retrospectivity.

A couple of recent court cases provide examples of how a bill’s effective date can affect a court’s retrospectivity analysis.

Impermissible Retroactivity

On March 27, 2006, the General Assembly enacted the “Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act,” which imposes restrictions on smoking in public places. The Act had an effective date of July 1, 2006. In Coalition for Equal Rights, Inc. v. Owens, 458 F. Supp. 2d 1251, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77914 (D. Colo. 2006), the U.S. District court in Denver ruled that section 25-14-204 (2), C.R.S., was impermissible ex post facto legislation because a cigar-tobacco bar owner who legally expanded a business between December 31, 2005, and July 1, 2006, would become subject to penalties as of July 1, 2006, for the pre-enactment expansion. Section 25-14-204 (2), C.R.S., states in part:

A cigar-tobacco bar shall not expand its size or change its location from the size and location in which it existed as of December 31, 2005.

The court stated that “on its face, this language criminalizes activity, expansion of a cigar-tobacco bar, that occurred prior to enactment, when it was still legal.”

Permissible Retroactivity

But, the fact that a law applies to a past action does not, in and of itself, make it impermissibly retroactive. In Meyerstein v. City of Aspen, 282 P.3d 456 (Colo. App. 2011), the Colorado Court of Appeals addressed the question of retroactive applicability. Section 38-12-301, C.R.S., which prohibits rent control by counties and municipalities, was amended effective September 1, 2010, by HB10-1017. The “effective date – applicability clause” of the act indicated that the changes applied to agreements entered into “before, on, or after September 1, 2010.” [emphasis added]

Before the 2010 amendment, section 38-12-301, C.R.S., simply stated:

38-12-301. Control of rents by counties and municipalities prohibited – legislative declaration. The general assembly finds and declares that the imposition of rent control on private residential housing units is a matter of statewide concern; therefore, no county or municipality may enact any ordinance or resolution which would control rents on private residential property.

The 2010 amendment clarified the restriction in that section by adding subsection (2):

(2) For purposes of subsection (1) of this section, an ordinance or resolution that would control rent on either private residential property or a private residential housing unit shall not include:

(a) A voluntary agreement between a county or municipality and a permit applicant or property owner to limit rent on the property or unit or that is otherwise designed to provide affordable housing stock; or

(b) The placement on the title to the unit of a deed restriction that limits rent on the property or unit or that is otherwise designed to provide affordable housing stock pursuant to a voluntary agreement between a county or municipality and a permit applicant or property owner to place the deed restriction on the title.

The Meyerstein court found that the 2010 changes to section 38-12-301, C.R.S., were meant to clarify the existing law, not change it, and therefore the retroactive application of the new language under the circumstances of the case did not violate the constitutional prohibition against retrospective legislation.

To reach its decision, the court first noted the General Assembly’s explicitly stated intent that the new subsection (2) be applied retroactively. Meyerstein, at 465. The court also noted that in a prior case (Town of Telluride v. Lot Thirty-Four Venture, L.L.C., 3 P.3d 30 (Colo. 2000)) the Colorado Supreme Court had concluded that the unamended statute was ambiguous — particularly as to whether the statute could be read to extend beyond just ordinances and resolutions to deed restrictions. Id. Finally, the court considered the legislative history of the 2010 bill, especially comments by the sponsor, Senator Betty Boyd, indicating that the bill was intended to “clarify” the scope of the existing provision. Id., at 466.

Next, applying the two-prong approach described in DeWitt, the court stated that the statutory change did not deprive the plaintiff of any vested right and did not produce any change in the plaintiff’s position. Id., at 466. The plaintiff had purchased property that was subject to a deed restriction limiting tenants and rents, and application of the new rent control statute did not change that fact. Id., at 466.

Legislative Time Travel

So in the rules of the legislative universe, it is technically possible to make a law travel back in time to apply to dates and actions that occurred before the law was passed. That is, it is possible for an enacted law to apply retroactively. However, for this to happen, the General Assembly must be absolutely clear about its intent, and the retroactive application of the law must pass strict judicial tests to ensure its constitutionality.