State courts question mandatory lifetime sex offender registration

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.

Juvenile registration requirements

On December 29, 2014 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) violates juvenile offenders’ due process rights through the use of an irrebuttable presumption of recidivism.  See In the Interest of J.B., 2014 Pa. LEXIS 3468 (Pa. 2014).  The court noted that “the common view of registered sexual offenders is that they are particularly dangerous,”  and that consequently registration “negatively affects juvenile offenders ability to obtain housing, schooling, and employment, which in turn hinders their ability to rehabilitate.”  Citing research demonstrating the difference between juvenile and adult offenders, notably where sex offenses are involved (“many acts of delinquency involve immaturity, impulsivity, and sexual curiosity rather than hardened criminality”), the court held that “individualized risk assessment, as used in other provisions of SORNA, provides a reasonable alternative means of determining which juvenile offenders pose a high risk of recidivating” so as to warrant their registration.

Given that juvenile offenders have a protected right to reputation encroached by SORNA’s presumption of recidivism, where the presumption is not universally true, and where there is a reasonable alternative means for ascertaining the likelihood of recidivating, we hold that the application of SORNA’s current lifetime registration requirements upon adjudication of specified offenses violates juvenile offenders’ due process rights by utilizing an irrebutable presumption.

The Pennsylvania court joined the Ohio Supreme Court in invalidating lifetime sex offender registration requirements imposed on juveniles.  In re C.P., 967 N.E.2d 729 (Ohio, 2012) (invalidating on state and federal cruel and unusual punishment and procedural due process grounds automatic, lifetime registration imposed on juvenile tried in juvenile system). Meanwhile, federal courts have persisted in upholding categorical registration requirements imposed on juveniles under the Adam Walsh Act.  See U.S. v. Juvenile Male, 670 F.3d 999 (9th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 234 (2012) (rejecting equal protection, cruel and unusual punishment, procedural and substantive due process challenges against automatic, lifetime registration).

On the general issue of juveniles being subject to registration and notification requirements, see Amy E. Halbrook, Juvenile Pariahs, 65 Hastings L.J. 1 (2013); Human Rights Watch, Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US, available at .; Stephanie Forbes, Comment, Sex, Cells, and SORNA: Applying Sex Offender Registration Laws to Sexting Cases, 52 Wm. & L. Rev. 1717 (2011). 

Adult registration requirements

Adults have also caught a few breaks in state court from increasingly harsh registration and notification requirements.  In 2011, the Ohio Supreme Court granted a challenge to the state’s amended registration law under the state’s constitutional ban on non-remedial retroactive laws, finding that “all doubt has been removed” as to whether the state’s law is punitive in character. State v. Williams, 952 N.E.2d 1108 (Ohio 2011). Earlier, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the increasingly onerous features of Indiana’s law, including in-home visits by police and the requirement that registrants carry a personal identification card at all times, violated the state constitution’s ex post facto provision. Wallace v. State, 905 N.E.2d 371 (Ind. 2009).  See also State v. Letalien, 985 A. 2d 4 (Me. 2009)(more burdensome later-enacted registration requirement violated ex post facto); Doe v. Sex Offender Registry, 882 N.E. 2d 298 (Mass. 2008)(due process violation in failure to give man subjected to new registration requirement opportunity to show that he posed no risk).  For recent examples of state court invalidation of registration requirements under state ex post facto provisions, see Doe v. Dep’t of Pub. Safety & Corr. Servs., 40 A.3d 39 (Md. 2013); Starkey v. Okla. Dep’t of Corr., 305 P.3d 1994 (Okla. 2013).*

As in situations involving juveniles, federal courts have persisted in finding that registration requirements fail to qualify as constitutional punishment, even in their augmented post-Adam Walsh Act form.  See, e.g., U.S. v. W.B.H., 664 F.3d 848 (11th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 524 (2012).  The state/federal duality is exemplified by the Alaska Supreme Court’s 2008 decision disagreeing with the Smith majority’s opinion that Alaska’s registration law was not punitive. See Doe v. State, 189 P.3d 999 (Alaska 2008).

For a discussion of constitutional challenges to sex offender registration and notification requirements, and other sex offense-related residency and associational restrictions, see Chapters 2 and 3 of Love, Roberts & Klingele, Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law, Policy & Practice (2013).  Wayne Logan will shortly be posting his new article on relief from registration requirements, discussed in an earlier post here.

*NOTE:  See also Doe v. New Hampshire, ___ N.H. ___ , No. 2013-496 (2015)(lifetime-registration-without-review provision of state law, pursuant to which petitioner was denied public housing, made requirement punitive for ex post facto purposes; the requirement could be enforced against petitioner only if he was promptly given an opportunity for either a court hearing, or an administrative hearing subject to judicial review, at which he was permitted to demonstrate that he no longer posed a risk sufficient to justify continued registration.)