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.
Earlier this month eight judges of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit blocked enforcement of a federal gun control law in two cases involving Pennsylvanians convicted of non-violent misdemeanors many years ago, invoking the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. The appeals court affirmed lower court decisions upholding the constitutional right of Daniel Binderup and Julio Suarez to possess firearms despite the fact that they are barred by federal statute from doing so. Seven other judges of the appeals court thought the Second Amendment should never be applied on a case-by-case basis to convicted individuals, and proposed that the federal statutory bar should determine the constitutional issue. The 174-page appellate decision in Binderup v. Holder has been widely reported but only in the most general terms, and not always entirely accurately.
Other as-applied Second Amendment challenges to firearms dispossession statutes are percolating through the courts. For example, Hamilton v. Palozzi will be argued next month in the Fourth Circuit, offering another opportunity for a court to hold that people convicted of non-violent crimes should not lose their firearms rights, there under a state dispossession statute rather than a federal one. Because the constitutional issues may shortly be before the Supreme Court for resolution, it seemed worth taking a closer look at the Binderup holding.
The Third Circuit has held that the federal bar to gun possession by convicted individuals cannot constitutionally be applied to two misdemeanants convicted years ago who were not sentenced to prison. In a fractured opinion, the Third Circuit sitting en banc ruled that the two challengers never lost their Second Amendment rights, and that the government offered no persuasive justification for depriving them of the right to bear arms. Five concurring judges thought the ruling too narrow, and would have limited this collateral consequence to individuals posing a public safety risk. Seven judges would not allow any “as applied” Second Amendment challenges to the federal bar to gun possession by convicted individuals.
We plan to post analyses of the opinion in coming days. In the meantime, here is Gene Volokh’s analysis from the Washington Post:
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.
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.
What (if anything) does the Virginia voting rights decision tell us about the president’s pardon power?
On July 22, 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down a series of executive orders issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe restoring voting and other civil rights to more than 200,000 convicted individuals. See Howell v. McAuliffe (Va. 2016). The court, in a 4-to-3 decision, disputed the governor’s assertion that his restoration power was absolute under the state’s Constitution. “We respectfully disagree,” the majority justices wrote. “The clemency power may be broad, but it is not absolute.” Governor McAuliffe responded to the court’s action by promising to restore the vote on an individual basis to everyone affected by his orders, starting with the 13,000 who had already registered to vote. More details of the reaction to the court’s ruling are reported here.
The Virginia court’s decision is interesting for what it may tell us about the possibility of class-wide grants of clemency, whether full pardon or sentence commutation, under the president’s pardon power. In finding limits on the governor’s restoration power under the Virginia constitution, the court relied upon two other constitutional provisions that have no analogue in the U.S. Constitution.
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.
Last month the Wisconsin Supreme Court held in State v. Lemere that the Sixth Amendment does not require defense counsel to advise a client that a conviction for a pending charge of sexual assault could result in future commitment proceedings under chapter 980. The case could be appropriate for certiorari review in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the scope of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, since it reflects differing views in state high courts. 1
- Ed. Note: State high courts have reached differing conclusions about the scope of the Padilla holding under the federal Constitution. The Illinois Supreme Court held in People v. Hughes that failure to warn about the possibility of civil commitment was sufficient to invalidate a plea. The Utah Supreme Court reached a contrary conclusion in State v. Trotter. ↩
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.
Federal courts are frequently asked to take into account the collateral consequences of conviction in determining what sentence to impose under the criteria in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). It is generally permissible for them to do so, and in line with current proposals of national law reform organizations. At the same time, courts must guard against the risk of socioeconomic bias favoring more privileged defendants who have the most to lose in the civil sphere, and who are likely to enjoy more vigorous and effective advocacy around collateral consequences.
The following discussion first reviews a federal court’s general obligation to understand the collateral consequences that apply in a particular case, and to ensure that a defendant considering a guilty plea has been adequately advised about them. It then reviews post-Booker case law approving below-guideline sentences based on the severe collateral penalties applicable to a particular defendant, such as loss of employment, extraordinary family circumstances, sex offender registration, and even reputational harm (“the stigma of conviction”). Finally, it discusses cases in which courts of appeal have refused to approve deep sentencing discounts based on collateral consequences in circumstances suggesting a bias favoring middle-class defendants. Read more