NJ high court bars retroactive application of Megan’s Law

The New Jersey Supreme Court on Wednesday held 2014 amendments to Megan’s Law enhancing certain penalties for sex offenders who violate parole requirements unenforceable against four defendants based on the ex post facto clauses of both the state and federal constitutions. The court, in a unanimous ruling, vacated the convictions and sentences of four paroled sex offenders who committed minor violations of their parole conditions and mounted a challenge to the laws. The ruling vacates the individuals’ third-degree convictions for the parole violations.
“A law that retroactively increases or makes more burdensome the punishment of a crime is an ex post facto law,” wrote Justice Barry Albin for the court. “The Amendment, therefore, is an ex post facto law that violates our Federal and State Constitutions as applied to defendants.”  The four sex offenders—Melvin Hester, Mark Warner, Linwood Roundtree and Anthony McKinney—after completing their sentences for the original crimes, were placed on community supervision for life, according to the decision. That means that they must register their addresses with local law enforcement, and inform law enforcement if they change their addresses.  Those registration requirements were enacted by the state Legislature in 1994 after a 7-year-old Hamilton Township girl, Megan Kanka, was sexually assaulted and murdered by a convicted sex offender, Jesse Timmendequas, who was living in her neighborhood. The requirements that paroled sex offenders register their whereabouts later became federal law.

In 2014, the Legislature passed legislation that enhanced the degree of failing to fully comply with community notification requirements from the fourth degree to the third degree. The four defendants in this case were paroled before the 2014 amendment, according to the court, but were indicted for violations that could have subjected them to prison terms and parole supervision for life under the 2014 amendment. Trial judges dismissed the charges, saying the enhanced penalties violated ex post facto clauses of the state and federal constitutions, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the state’s appeal.

In Wednesday’s decision, Albin said the 2014 change to Megan’s Law “violates defendants’ rights under the New Jersey Constitution’s ex post facto clause” and amounted to a sentencing enhancement as applied to those defendants. “In effect, the 2014 amendment materially altered defendants’ prior sentences to their disadvantage,” he said. “The 2014 amendment effected not a simple procedural change but rather one that offends the very principles animating the ex post facto clauses of our federal and state constitutions.”

“The State contends that the 2014 Amendment is a classic recidivist statute that enhances the punishment for subsequent offenses and therefore is not an ex post facto law. However, the 2014 Amendment operates differently than recidivist statutes that have withstood challenge under the Federal and State Ex Post Facto Clauses,” Albin wrote, adding that “the 2014 Amendment related not to the commission of a subsequent crime but rather to the terms of the sentence imposed for defendants’ prior crimes.” The court held that the case at bar is “not substantively different from” that of its 2015 decision in State v. Perez, where the court said that a law retroactively enhancing the defendant’s status to “parole supervision for life” from “community supervision for life” violated ex post facto provisions as applied. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which handled the state’s appeal, declined to comment.