A federal judge in San Francisco has dismissed a constitutional challenge to the recently enacted International Megan’s Law, which requires specially-marked passports for registered sex offenders whose offenses involved child victims, and authorizes notification to foreign governments when they travel. The so-called “Scarlet Letter” law is specifically aimed at stopping child sex trafficking and sex tourism, and this purpose was evidently enough to justify it even though it has a far broader effect.
In the wake of the Brock Turner case, a 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.
A federal appeals court has concluded that Michigan’s amendments to its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) “impose punishment” and thus may not constitutionally be applied retroactively. See Does v. Snyder, No. 15-1536 (6th Cir. Aug. 25, 2016). Here is the concluding analysis from the Sixth Circuit’s unanimous panel decision reaching this result:
So, is SORA’s actual effect punitive? Many states confronting similar laws have said “yes.” See, e.g., Doe v. State, 111 A.3d 1077, 1100 (N.H. 2015); State v. Letalien, 985 A.2d 4, 26 (Me. 2009); Starkey v. Oklahoma Dep’t of Corr., 305 P.3d 1004 (Okla. 2013); Commonwealth v. Baker, 295 S.W.3d 437 (Ky. 2009); Doe v. State, 189 P.3d 999, 1017 (Alaska 2008). And we agree. In reaching this conclusion, we are mindful that [consistent with the Supreme Court’s holding in Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84, 92 (2003)] states are free to pass retroactive sex-offender registry laws and that those challenging an ostensibly non-punitive civil law must show by the “clearest proof” that the statute in fact inflicts punishment. But difficult is not the same as impossible. Nor should Smith be understood as writing a blank check to states to do whatever they please in this arena.
A regulatory regime that severely restricts where people can live, work, and “loiter,” that categorizes them into tiers ostensibly corresponding to present dangerousness without any individualized assessment thereof, and that requires time-consuming and cumbersome in-person reporting, all supported by — at best — scant evidence that such restrictions serve the professed purpose of keeping Michigan communities safe, is something altogether different from and more troubling than Alaska’s first-generation registry law. SORA brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction. It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins, not only of society, but often, as the record in this case makes painfully evident, from their own families, with whom, due to school zone restrictions, they may not even live. It directly regulates where registrants may go in their daily lives and compels them to interrupt those lives with great frequency in order to appear in person before law enforcement to report even minor changes to their information.
We conclude that Michigan’s SORA imposes punishment. And while many (certainly not all) sex offenses involve abominable, almost unspeakable, conduct that deserves severe legal penalties, punishment may never be retroactively imposed or increased. Indeed, the fact that sex offenders are so widely feared and disdained by the general public implicates the core countermajoritarian principle embodied in the Ex Post Facto clause. As the founders rightly perceived, as dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice. Such lawmaking has “been, in all ages, [a] favorite and most formidable instrument of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 84, supraat 444 (Alexander Hamilton). It is, as Justice Chase argued, incompatible with both the words of the Constitution and the underlying first principles of “our free republican governments.” Calder, 3 U.S. at 388–89;accord The Federalist No. 44, supra at 232 (James Madison) (“[E]x post facto laws . . . are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”). The retroactive application of SORA’s 2006 and 2011 amendments to Plaintiffs is unconstitutional, and it must therefore cease.
Have we been wrong in trying to fit the round peg of collateral consequences into the square hole of punishment? Sandra Mayson, a Fellow at the Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says yes. In an article published in the Notre Dame Law Review, Mayson challenges the view of some scholars that mandatory collateral consequences should be considered part of the court-imposed sentence, and thus potentially limited by procedural due process and ex post facto principles. For starters, the Supreme Court has told us that dog won’t hunt.
But that doesn’t mean that collateral consequences should be immune from constitutional constraint. Mayson proposes instead to analyze collateral consequences as “preventive risk regulation” under principles developed in the administrative law context. Specifically, she argues that a severe collateral consequence (such as sex offender registration) may be justified only if it can be shown to serve a public safety purpose in a particular case.
I recently had the chance to meet with one of the leading international experts on the treatment and punishment of people who have committed sex offenses. I noticed she has a small tattoo of an ampersand on the inside of her wrist. I keep thinking of that ampersand as I read Brock Turner rage memes, which I both hate and find so satisfying.
Ampersand: This difficult fact is true AND this other, seemingly contradictory fact is also true. It’s difficult to hold all of it at the same time– fury against the man who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, AND relief at the rare flash of humanity and mercy extended to him in our otherwise unrelenting carceral system, AND anger about the race and class context of that mercy.
Our current sex offense policies thwart accountability by perpetrators, re-traumatize victims of sexual assault, foster racialized implementation of laws, decrease public health and public safety in our communities, and, despite their failures, cost us billions of dollars each year. In short, it’s a crisis.
Lincoln Caplan writes in this week’s New Yorker about Judge Frederic Block’s decision last week to reduce a woman’s prison sentence because of the life-altering collateral penalties she faced on account of her drug conviction. After describing the facts of the case and the judge’s reasoning, Caplan concludes with the following comments about what Jeremy Travis has called “invisible ingredients in the legislative menu of criminal sanctions”:
The main conclusion of the judge’s opinion is that, while the law allowed him to take account of the civil penalties when he sentenced her, there was nothing he could do to protect her from them. He joined criminal-justice experts in encouraging Congress and state legislatures “to determine whether the plethora of post-sentence punishments imposed upon felons is truly warranted,” and suggested that they do the country “more harm than good.” He didn’t say so, but for many legislatures that would mean carefully assessing these punishments for the first time. As the criminal-justice scholar Jeremy Travis wrote, in 2002, legislatures have often adopted collateral consequences in unaccountable ways: “as riders to other, major pieces of legislation,” which are “given scant attention.” They are, Travis said, “invisible ingredients in the legislative menu of criminal sanctions.”
The judge made clear why the severity of collateral consequences—authorizing discrimination in education, employment, housing, and many other basic elements of American life—means that anyone convicted of a felony is likely to face an arduous future. This predicament has been called modern civil death, social exclusion, and internal exile. Whatever it is called, its vast array of penalties kicks in automatically with a conviction, defying the supposedly bedrock principle of American law that the punishment must fit the crime.
One of the most significant things about Mr. Caplan’s comments is that they make clear he believes collateral consequences are “punishment,” not “regulation,” and should be treated as such. Courts are beginning to regard them as such as well for purposes of applying constitutional principles. See, for example, the three cases now pending in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where the validity of the state’s new sex offender registration scheme is at stake. States are increasingly looking at lifetime registration as punishment under their own state constitutions. So it should not be long before the U.S. Supreme Court is asked to reconsider its 2003 holdings that such collateral consequences are immune from constitutional challenge based on the Due Process and Ex Post Facto clauses.
In the last few years, Pennsylvania’s courts have taken an active role in defining the propriety and scope of the state’s sex offender registration program. Following on the heels of a December 2014 decision striking down sex offender registration for juveniles, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a sweeping challenge to the retroactive application of Pennsylvania’s adult sex offender registry. The new law, generally referred to as SORNA (Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act), took effect on December 20, 2012 as part of an effort to comply with the federal laws governing sex offenders. SORNA replaced a more lenient registration scheme where the majority of people convicted of sexual crimes had to register for only ten years. SORNA changed the paradigm and drastically increased the number of people included on the registry, the time periods for which they would have to register, and the number of things they have to report. Of the close to 19,500 people on the registry today, roughly three quarters have to register for the rest of their lives without any chance of removal.
In addition to making most offenders lifetime registrants, SORNA reclassified thousands of people who were ten year registrants under the old law and retroactively increased their terms of registration – in most instances to life. Hundreds of registrants sued, raising a number of different challenges to the law. Until now, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has refused to get involved.
Vermonter Rich Cassidy, who chairs the CCRC Board, drew our attention to this extraordinary story of courage and compassion and plain good sense in the Green Mountain State. Published last week in the Vermont weekly Seven Days, it tells the story of LaMoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr.’s decision to take a chance on Timothy Szad, described as “a gifted carpenter and diligent worker” who is also “Lamoille County’s most notorious criminal.”
Here are a few introductory paragraphs to a story well worth reading in full.
In 2000, Szad stalked and sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy in the southern Vermont woods. He went to jail for his crime and served the maximum sentence. But his punishment didn’t end when he got out, in 2013. His release was widely publicized, which generated something of a vigilante reaction. So he embarked on a cross-country journey in search of a new home. When no place would have him, he wound up back in Vermont — this time, in sleepy Hyde Park.
The Cumberland County (Pennsylvania) Sentinel recently published a series of articles by Joshua Vaughn that examine the operation and effect of sex offender registration laws from a variety of perspectives. We summarize the articles with links to the Sentinel’s website.
Finding statistics to fit a narrative
Vaughn traces the “frightening and high risk of recidivism” for untreated sex offenders that Justice Kennedy used to support the Supreme Court’s holdings in McKune v. Lile (2002) and Smith v. Doe (2003) to an unsourced “anecdotal quip” in a 1986 article from Psychology Today suggesting sex offender recidivism rates as high as 80%. That figure found its way into a Justice Department practitioner’s guide for treating incarcerated sex offenders, which in turn was cited by the Solicitor General’s amicus brief in McKune. Vaughn, asking how such a questionable statistic could turn out to be a “linchpin fact” in two extremely influential Supreme Court cases, proposes that the Court relied on the Solicitor General, who in turn relied on the practice guide without doing his own research.
Vaughn reports that the Justice Department “now states on its website that the rate at which released sexual offenders are rearrested for new sexual offenses is as low as 3 to 10 percent,” evidently referring to a report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
A federal judge in the Northern District of California has declined to block enforcement of the so-called “Scarlet Letter” provision of the recently-enacted International Megan’s Law (IML). U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled on April 12 that a challenge to the requirement that sex offenders’ passports be marked with a unique identifier was not ripe for injunctive relief, “because significant steps must be taken before the passport identifier can be implemented,” and because “it is unclear how the provision will be implemented.” The court also held that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge a separate IML provision requiring notification of a registered sex offender’s intended foreign travel.
Respecting the IML passport identifier provision, the court pointed out that
the statutory language makes clear that no such requirement is yet in effect, and that it will not take effect until after the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State and the Attorney General have developed a process for implementation, submitted a joint report to Congress regarding this proposed process, and, finally, certified that the process has been successfully implemented. See IML §§ 8(f), 9(a)-(b).