What is an ex post facto law?

An ex post facto law is one that is made retroactive to punish an act that wasn't illegal at the time it was committed. For example, if I didn't wear my seatbelt and wearing one wasn't a law, but it became a law the next day, I couldn't get in trouble for it because the "crime" was committed before it was against the law.

Article I of the US Constitution specifically says this cannot be done. Laws that don't involve penalties can reference dates in the past to allow an income tax break or permit eligibility for a program based on past actions (such as fighting in a war).

The reason the Constitution prevents Congress (and the states) from writing ex post facto laws is to protect the population and other entities from government abuse.