Two years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shook up long-settled orthodoxy by ruling that the state’s sex offender registration law, otherwise known as SORNA (Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act) was punishment. The case, Commonwealth v. Muniz, 164 A.3d 1189 (Pa. 2018), presented the Court with two questions: whether people who committed their crimes before the adoption of the law could continue to be registered without running afoul of the state Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause, a fairness doctrine that prevents governments from retroactively applying greater punishments to conduct than could have been applied at the time of the crime; and, second, whether the law more broadly violates due process by unfairly labeling a person as sexually dangerous without first proving that fact and without giving the person an opportunity to challenge that message. While the Court answered the first question with a resounding yes, it punted on the second.
The effect of that decision meant that although Pennsylvania was forced to reduce the length of registration for many people who had committed their crimes many years before, or in many cases remove them from the registry altogether, it did little to change how the law would be applied moving forward. SORNA was largely left undisturbed for the roughly 1500 new people added to the registry every year. The due process issue left undecided by the Pennsylvania high court in Muniz is now again before that court, and this time it will be harder to avoid deciding it.
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.
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.