Big win for sex offenders in PA as registration held punishment

Yesterday, in Commonwealth v. Muniz, __A.3d__ (Pa., July 19, 2017) (47 MAP 2016), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held what for a long time has been obvious to many: that sex offender registration is punishment. Five Justices declared that Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act’s (SORNA) “registration provisions constitute punishment under Article 1, Section 17 of the Pennsylvania Constitution — Pennsylvania’s Ex Post Facto Clause. The majority of the Court held in no uncertain terms:

1) SORNA’s registration provisions constitute punishment notwithstanding the General Assembly’s identification of the provisions as nonpunitive; 2) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions violates the federal ex post facto clause; and 3) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions also violates the ex post facto clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

This is a radical shift from prior Pennsylvania and federal law.  Although the reasoning of the justices to get to this result is a little convoluted because several in the majority did not believe that the court even needed to address the Federal claim, the end result is clear. The decision directly affects roughly 4500 people in addition to Mr. Muniz.

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PA high court holds sex offender registration unconstitutional

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a divided opinion, has held the provisions of the state’s sex offender registration law (SORNA) unconstitutional under the state and federal constitutions.  The majority in Commonwealth v. Muniz held that 1) SORNA’s registration provisions constitute punishment notwithstanding the General Assembly’s identification of the provisions as nonpunitive; 2) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions violates the federal ex post facto clause; and 3) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions also violates the ex post facto clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  The Court distinguished the Alaska registration scheme upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003), and cited a number of other recent state high court holdings invalidating similarly harsh registration regimes.  The Court relied heavily for its analysis on an amicus brief filed jointly by the Defender Association of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (PACDL). CCRC also filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, describing the counterproductive effects of such registration schemes. The concurring and dissenting opinions are posted here and here.

A full analysis of the holding and of the concurring and dissenting opinions will follow shortly.

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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Fair Credit Reporting Act applied to criminal records

The following is a summary of how the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) applies to criminal background checks, written by Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.  More detailed information about FCRA’s interpretation and enforcement is available in this 2011 FTC report.  Current information about FCRA’s enforcement as applied to criminal records will appear in the upcoming third edition of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law Policy and Practice.  

Where a criminal record report is provided to an employer by a credit reporting agency (“CRA”), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq, is applicable. See Beaudette, FTC Informal Staff Opinion Letter, June 9, 1998 (available here).  FCRA creates obligations both on CRAs preparing criminal background reports and on employers using them.

Among the duties of CRAs compiling criminal background reports for employers are the following:

  • CRAs may not report arrests or other adverse information (other than convictions of crimes) which are more than seven years old, provided that the report does not concern employment of an individual who has an annual salary that is $75,000 or more.   15 U.S.C. §§ 1681c(a)(5), 1681c(b)(3).
  • CRAs must use “reasonable procedures” to insure “maximum possible accuracy” of the information in the report.  15 U.S.C. §1681e(b).
  • Elements of cause of action: (1) Inaccurate information in report; (2) inaccuracy due to CRA’s failure to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy; (3) consumer suffered injury (can include emotional injury); and (4) injury was caused by inaccurate entry.  Crane v. Trans Union, 282 F. Supp. 2d 311 (E.D. Pa. 2003)(Dalzell) (citing Philin v. Trans Union Corp., 101 F. 3d 957, 963 (3d Cir. 1996)).
  • A CRA reporting public record information for employment purposes which “is likely to have an adverse effect on the consumer’s ability to obtain employment” must either notify the person that the public record information is being reported and provide the name and address of the person who is requesting the information at the time that the information is provider to the user or the CRA must maintain strict procedures to insure that the information it reports is complete and up to date.  15 U.S.C. §1681k.

California follows federal lead in limiting employment screening

A new California regulation took effect last week that puts employers on notice that adverse action based on criminal history may violate state law prohibitions on racial discrimination.  The regulation closely tracks a 2012 guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which asserts that consideration of criminal history by employers violates Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act when it adversely impacts racial minorities and is not job-related or consistent with business necessity.

The California regulation adopts, in broad terms, the same position and standards put forth in the EEOC guidance, but applies them to the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which prohibits employment discrimination on grounds that are substantially similar to those enumerated in Title VII.  Like the EEOC guidance, the new FEHA regulation sets forth a number of factors used to determine whether a particular practice is job-related and consistent with business necessity, including whether it takes into account “the nature and gravity of the offense,” “the time that has passed since the offense,” and “the nature of the job held or sought.”

The fact that the regulation was promulgated by the state’s Department of Fair Housing and Employment, which may sue to enforce the FEHA, may give California employers that have not already conformed their practices to the EEOC guidance an incentive to do so. Moreover, the new regulation ought to make it easier for individuals to challenge criminal history screening practices by giving them a clear basis for action under California law.

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“More Justice and Less Harm: Reinventing Access to Criminal History Records”

This is the title of an important new article published by Alessandro Corda in the Howard Law Journal proposing a radical way of addressing the malign social impact of our current policies on public access to arrest and conviction records.  Corda traces the evolution of record dissemination policies and practices since the 1950s, contrasting the American and European experience where “informal collateral consequences” are concerned.  He critiques “partial remedial measures” like expungement and certificates of rehabilitation, and argues for making publication of a defendant’s record an “ancillary sanction” ordered (or not) by the court at sentencing.

While this solution may at first blush seem a bit ambitious, there are states (like Wisconsin) whose sentencing courts can offer the promise of set-aside and expungement upon successful completion of sentence, and that is indeed how the federal Youth Corrections Act operated before its repeal in 1984.

At the very least, Corda makes a convincing case that strong measures are necessary to mitigate the permanent stigma of a criminal record in the information age.  The historical and international material will be of particular value to those currently working on this problem in legislatures across the country.  Here is the abstract:

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Introducing the new Restoration of Rights Project

 

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center and its partner organizations, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and the National HIRE Network, are pleased to announce the launch of the newly expanded and fully updated Restoration of Rights Project.

The Restoration of Rights Project is an online resource that offers state-by-state analyses of the law and practice in each U.S. jurisdiction relating to restoration of rights and status following arrest or conviction.   Jurisdictional “profiles” cover areas such as loss and restoration of civil rights and firearms rights, judicial and executive mechanisms for avoiding or mitigating collateral consequences, and provisions addressing non-discrimination in employment and licensing.  Each jurisdiction’s information is separately summarized for quick reference.   

In addition to the jurisdictional profiles, a set of 50-state comparison charts summarizes the law and illustrates national patterns in restoration laws and policies.   We expect to supplement these resources in weeks to come with jurisdiction-specific information about organizations that may be able to assist individuals in securing relief, and information on other third-party resources.

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Supreme Court supports immigrant’s right to understand consequences of conviction

The author of the following post about the Supreme Court’s decision in Jae Lee v. United States drafted an amicus brief in the case for several national immigrant rights organizations.

In 2010, Padilla v. Kentucky established that criminal defense lawyers must advise clients about the deportation consequences of a conviction, as part of their duties under the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. Jose Padilla won in the Supreme Court because his trial lawyer erroneously informed him that he would not be deported after pleading guilty to drug trafficking because he had been in the U.S. for so long and had served in the military in Vietnam. However, Padilla’s case was remanded for a lower court determination of whether his trial lawyer’s incompetence caused him prejudice, since a defendant can win an ineffective assistance of counsel claim under the Court’s 1984 decision in Strickland v. Washington only by showing both attorney incompetence and prejudice.

Last week, in Lee v. United States, the Court considered the standard for proving prejudice, ruling in Lee’s favor in a 6-2 decision by Justice Roberts (Justices Alito and Thomas dissented). The Government conceded that Jae Lee’s trial lawyer failed to meet his duty under Padilla by assuring him that he would not be deported if he pled guilty to selling ecstasy. The only issue for the Court was the proper standard for proving prejudice when a defendant pleads guilty in a case involving strong evidence of guilt.

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Defendant entitled to “Hail Mary” effort to avoid deportation

The Supreme Court has settled a dispute lingering in the lower courts since its decision seven years ago in Padilla v. Kentucky:  If a criminal defendant’s decision to plead guilty resulted from his lawyer’s constitutionally deficient advice about the collateral consequences of conviction, what does he have to show to undo the plea and bring the government back to the bargaining table?  The question before the Court in Jae Lee v. United States was whether a defendant facing deportation must be given a second chance to stay in the United States after bad advice from his lawyer led him to plead guilty, even though the odds of his winning at trial are low and he is likely to be deported anyway.

The government argued that no “rational” defendant in Lee’s position would have risked a longer prison term, that he therefore could not show that he was prejudiced by his lawyer’s bad advice, and that the plea should accordingly stand.  Lee countered that “deportation after some time in prison was not meaningfully different from deportation after somewhat less time,” and that he would have taken his chances with the jury if he had had accurate advice about the consequences of pleading guilty.  As the Court put it, he “would have rejected any plea leading to deportation in favor of throwing a ‘Hail Mary’ at trial.”

On June 23, the Supreme Court agreed that Lee should have another bite at the apple. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held 6-2 that Lee had met his burden of showing that it would not have been “irrational” for him to reject the plea offer and go to trial, even though he would have been “almost certain” to lose.

The Court’s opinion is analyzed by Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog here.  Justices Thomas and Alito dissented, and Justice Gorsuch took no part in the decision.

“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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