Sex offender consequences in the Supreme Court – what’s ahead?

“The Supreme Court’s Mixed Signals in Packingham” is the title of a thoughtful comment by Bidish Sarma analyzing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, recently published on the American Constitution Society website.  (An early analysis of the Packingham decision by Wayne Logan appeared on this site on June 20.)  Mr. Sarma proposes that “the time has come to ask whether society’s ‘war’ on sex offenders who have already completed criminal sentences has gone too far.”

While the Packingham holding is confined to the First Amendment issues raised by North Carolina’s broad restrictions on access to “an astounding range of websites (including news websites, WebMD and Amazon),” Sarma singles out a sentence in Justice Kennedy’s opinion suggesting a broader underlying concern about the constitutionality of sex offender consequences:

Justice Kennedy’s opinion hints that the justices in fact harbor concerns. In a parenthetical note, the decision referred to “the troubling fact that the law imposes severe restrictions on persons who already have served their sentence and are no longer subject to the supervision of the criminal justice system,” and observed that this fact is “not an issue before the Court.”

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“Justice Alito’s misleading claim about sex offender rearrests”

The title of this post is the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker’s” assessment of a statement in Justice Alito’s concurrence in Packingham v. North Carolina about the recidivism rates of sex offenders.  We reprint excerpts because of the importance of the issue to the Supreme Court’s collateral consequences jurisprudence:

“Repeat sex offenders pose an especially grave risk to children. ‘When convicted sex offenders reenter society, they are much more likely than any other type of offender to be rearrested for a new rape or sexual assault.’”
–Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., concurring opinion in Packingham v. North Carolina, June 19, 2017

. . . . .

The Fact Checker normally doesn’t fact-check Supreme Court justices, and we certainly do not fact-check opinions. But the topic of sex offender recidivism is worth clarifying because it is often misconstrued, so we found Alito’s claim newsworthy. And this specific claim is an assertion of fact, rather than the justices’ actual opinion.

What do the data show?

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SCOTUS invalidates law criminalizing sex offender access to social media

Departing from its customary reluctance to find fault with laws singling out convicted sex offenders for harsh treatment, after they have completed their sentences, the Supreme Court in Packingham v. North Carolina yesterday struck down a state law making it a felony for registered sex offenders to access commercial social networking websites. The petitioner in Packingham, a registered sex offender, violated the North Carolina law when after learning that a traffic ticket against him had been dismissed in court he posted the following message on his Facebook.com personal profile:

Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court cost, no nothing spent….Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!

Packingham was convicted and thereafter challenged his conviction on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the law violated his right to free speech.

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National law reform proposal on collateral consequences

A long-running national law reform project that is reaching its final stages includes a broad and progressive scheme for dealing with the collateral consequences of conviction.  The American Law Institute (ALI), the nation’s oldest and most respected law reform organization, will meet in Washington on May 22-24 to approve a revision of the sentencing articles of the Model Penal Code, the first such revision in 60 years. The revised MPC: Sentencing includes an ambitious and comprehensive scheme for managing and limiting collateral consequences.  [NOTE: The MPC: Sentencing draft was given final approval by the ALI Annual Meeting on May 24.]

In commentary published last month on the ALI website, MPC Reporters Kevin Reitz and Cecelia Klingele discussed the role of sentencing commissions in managing collateral consequences under the MPC provisions, as well as its provisions relating to notice and relief.   As under the original 1962 Code, the 2017 Code gives the sentencing court the key roles in ensuring that defendants have an opportunity to overcome the adverse effects of collateral consequences.  The 2017 Code provisions also include an important role for sentencing commissions in establishing policy and practice for the courts. The commentary is well worth reading by anyone searching for innovative ways to lighten the burden of a criminal record.

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Felony Disenfranchisement: Setting the Record Straighter

Recently, a woman standing outside of a Berkeley grocery store asked if I wanted to register to vote. I asked her, “Can I vote if I’m on probation?” She looked at me with horror, gripped her clipboard, and physically recoiled from me and the cantaloupe I was holding. Once she regained some composure, she sincerely, confidently, and erroneously informed me that California’s laws prohibit voting while on probation.

That encounter inspired me to draft these goals for all of the voter registration advocates (including me!) working the sidewalks this election season:

1: Practice not physically recoiling in horror from people we encounter in life.

2: Learn the voting laws in our jurisdictions to avoid disenfranchisement through disinformation.

Each state has its own laws about voting following a felony conviction.  Two states never disenfranchise voters following conviction. (Hey, Maine! Hey, Vermont!) Some states permanently terminate the voting rights of outrageous numbers of its citizens: Florida’s draconian voting laws disenfranchise 10% of its total population. In 2000, Florida disenfranchised 600,000 citizens with felony convictions. That same year, its presidential race was decided by 537 votes.

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When collateral consequences drive the sentence: The David Becker case

In the wake of the Brock Turner casea new controversy was ignited in Massachusetts last month when 18-year-old David Becker, a white college-bound athlete, received two years’ probation after pleading guilty to indecent assault of an unconscious woman at a house party.  As in the Turner case, many are outraged by a penalty they regard as too lenient and the result of white privilege.  However, any perceived injustice in the Becker case may be less about an abuse of judicial discretion than about the limited ability of judges to mitigate collateral consequences.

Critics of the decision may be even more concerned to learn that David Becker was not actually convicted of a crime.  Instead, District Court Judge Thomas Estes accepted Becker’s guilty plea and ordered a “continuance without a finding” (known as a CWOF) for two years while Becker serves a term of probation.  If Becker completes the conditions of probation successfully, the charges against him will be dismissed and the record will be eligible for sealing.

The fact that Becker was not convicted is significant because it allows him to avoid both registering as a sex offender and the numerous collateral consequences that would come with having a criminal record.

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Prez promises to catch up on pardons — but he’s far behind

We have wondered whether President Obama would ever turn his attention to what has become the red-headed stepchild of the clemency caseload: full pardons to restore rights and status after service of sentence.  To date President Obama has focused on commuting prison sentences, and has issued fewer pardons than any full-term president since the Civil War.  It appears that the time may be at hand.

The Politico reported on Thursday that at a press conference the day after his most recent batch of sentence commutations, President Obama said he intended to grant more full pardons before the end of his term – a lot more.

At a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, a reporter [Greg Korte of USA Today] noted that Obama has been the stingiest two-term president on forgiveness since John Adams.  Obama acknowledged that his administration has “focused more on commutations than we have on pardons.” “I would argue,” he continued, “that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.”

The President also indicated that he did not intend to change his pardoning practices at the end of his term: “The process that I’ve put in place is not going to vary depending on how close I get to the election.”

President Obama will no doubt grant more full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to more commutations.  But it will be a tall order for him to match his predecessors even “roughly” in absolute number of pardons.  For example, George W. Bush granted 189 pardons, Bill Clinton granted 396, and Ronald Reagan granted 393.  Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford granted 593 and 382 full pardons, respectively. By contrast, after seven and a half years Obama has granted a total of only 66 full pardons (not counting the four pre-conviction pardons granted to Iranians prior in last year’s foreign policy “swap”).  Only George H.W. Bush had issued fewer grants nearing the end of his tenure — and to be fair he served only one term and received far fewer applications.

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“Prosecuting Collateral Consequences” is an important contribution

On Monday, the CCRC posted the abstract of an extensive new law review article, Prosecuting Collateral Consequences, 104 Georgetown L. J. 1197 (2016). The article, by a brand new University of North Carolina Law Professor, Elisha Jain, argues that new awareness of the collateral consequences of criminal conviction has extended the largely unreviewable discretion of public prosecutors into civil public policy decisions like deportation and licensing.

This should not be news to anyone who has followed the developing scholarship in the field, but it is a point worth making at some length. The article makes unmistakable a point that is only now emerging among many participants in the criminal justice system: that because the collateral consequences of conviction are often, particularly as to minor crimes, more important than the direct consequences of conviction, sophisticated defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges will make negotiating about collateral consequences a central feature of the plea bargaining process.

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“Divergent moral vision” — Collateral consequences in Europe and the U.S.

A new article in the Stanford Law Review discusses the radically different forms of punishment in the United States and Europe, which its author attributes at least in part to differing moral visions of wrongdoing and wrongdoers.  In Two Cultures of Punishment, Joshua Kleinfeld argues that while Americans tend to regard serious offenders as “morally deformed people rather than ordinary people who have committed crimes,” European cultures “affirm even the worst offenders’ claims to social membership and rights.”

Kleinfeld illustrates this “divergent moral vision” by the very different approach European countries take to collateral consequences. (The other two areas discussed in the article are lengthy prison terms and capital punishment).  Whereas in this country people convicted of crime are subject to a lifetime of legal restrictions and social stigma analogous to older forms of civil death, and are effectively consigned to a kind of “internal exile,” in Europe people who have committed a crime benefit from numerous measures to encourage their reintegration.

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The pros and cons of fingerprinting Uber drivers

The following piece by Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project was originally published on the Huffington Post.


 

Uber’s ruthless expansion strategy has put state and local legislators in the middle of the debate over regulation of the on-demand, ride-hailing workforce. Laws requiring background checks for drivers, which can restrict access to Uber’s core asset, are now a central theme of the regulatory battle, focusing specifically on the use of state and federal criminal history databases that require fingerprinting of ride-hailing drivers.

Indeed, Uber and Lyft recently chose to abandon the Austin, Texas market rather than comply with local laws requiring taxi drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks (56 percent of Austin voters rejected an initiative to exempt on-demand companies from the city’s law). And in New Jersey and Chicago, where similar measures are now being actively debated, Uber retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lobby against the bills by challenging the accuracy and fairness of fingerprint-based FBI background checks (which is an issue that NELP has championed as an advocate of bi-partisan federal reform legislation).

To help inform the debate, it’s important to first clarify that “fingerprinting” is a shorthand term referring to background checks that require an individual’s fingerprint (usually captured by means of “livescan” technology) to access either a state criminal history repository or the FBI database, which collects data from the state and local systems. In contrast to name-based checks conducted by commercial background check companies, fingerprint-based checks are less vulnerable to misidentification. In addition, private employers typically cannot access the databases requiring fingerprinting of the workers unless authorized by a federal, state, or local occupational licensing law, like the ride-hailing laws regulating taxi drivers. Instead, with varying degrees of accuracy, the commercial background check companies collect criminal history data from the local courts, the states, and “aggregators” of criminal history data.

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