On January 24, the Michigan Supreme Court held the state’s sex offender registration scheme unconstitutional on due process grounds as applied to one Boban Temelkoski. Temelkoski had pleaded guilty under a youthful offender statute with the expectation that no collateral consequences would attach to the disposition if he successfully completed its conditions. However, several years later a registration requirement was enacted and applied retroactively to his case. Because the court decided Temelkoski’s case on due process grounds, it did not need to address arguments that application of the registration statute to him constituted constitutionally impermissible punishment. However, the court hinted in dicta how it might decide that issue, stating that “It is undisputed that registration under SORA constitutes a civil disability.” While a win is a win, we must wait another day for a decision on the constitutionality of Michigan’s registration scheme under the Ex Post Facto Clause and the State’s version of the Eighth Amendment.
The CCRC has filed an amicus brief in the Illinois Supreme Court in support of the appellant in People v. Bingham, a case challenging the constitutionality of a state law requiring registration as a “sexual predator” based on the commission of a non-sexual offense. The relevant facts of the case are as follows.
Jerome Bingham was convicted of attempted sexual assault in 1983 and served several years in prison on that charge. At the time, Illinois did not have a sex offender registration requirement. Thereafter, Bingham was convicted of a number of petty drug and theft offenses. In 2012, Illinois enacted an amendment to its sex offender registration act (SORA) providing that its registration requirement would apply retroactively to anyone who had previously committed a qualifying sex offense and, subsequent to the 2012 act, committed any felony. In 2013, Bingham stole goods worth $72 from a K-Mart storage lot. Although this would ordinarily have been a misdemeanor, the fact that he had a prior similar offense permitted it to be charged as a felony, which it was, thereby subjecting him to the sex offender registration requirement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week a federal judge heard the first arguments in a lawsuit challenging certain provisions of the recently-enacted International Megan’s Law (IML),* including one mandating that the passport of any American required to register for a sex offense involving a minor be marked in “a conspicuous location” with a “unique identifier” of their sex offender status. Other challenged provisions of the law authorize the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to notify destination nations of forthcoming visits from those individuals. On Wednesday the court heard a motion for a preliminary injunction that would block enforcement of the challenged provisions of the law pending the suit’s final outcome. See Doe v. Kerry, Case 3:16-cv-00654 (N.D. Ca.).
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decisions in Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, 538 U.S. 1 (2003) and Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003), state courts are coming to different conclusions under their own constitutions about whether sex offender registration and notification laws constitute punishment for purposes of due process and ex post facto analysis. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the most recent to invalidate mandatory registration requirements imposed on juveniles, but several state supreme courts have limited the retroactive application of registration requirements to adults under an ex post facto analysis.
We recently came across this five-part series on sex offender registries, written by three Yale Law School students and published by Slate.com. It traces the recent history of registries since the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Act in 1994, examines some of the fallacies and flawed stereotypes underlying the expansion of registries in the past 20 years, and spotlights three areas in which the authors argue their growth has been especially unwise:
- more non-violent “outlier” crimes are covered;
- states are keeping people on registries for longer periods of time and making removal harder; and
- more harsh collateral consequences attach to those required to register.