Cambridge University Press has just published a new book, edited by Professors Wayne A. Logan and J.J. Prescott, containing chapters from the nation’s leading social science researchers on the many important empirical questions surrounding sex offense registration and community notification (SORN). Since SORN’s origin in the early 1990s, basic questions have existed regarding its effects, including whether it actually achieves its intended purpose of reducing sexual offending.
SORN surely numbers among the most significant social control methods of the past several decades. Although the Supreme Court in 2003 rejected two constitutional challenges to SORN laws (Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe and Smith v. Doe), of late courts, including the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (Does v. Snyder, 2016), have cast a more critical eye, invalidating new generation SORN laws that have become more onerous and expansive in their reach.
An updated review of caselaw from Professor Logan on SORN and other collateral consequences triggered primarily by sex offenses will be included in the forthcoming fourth edition of Love, Roberts & Logan, Collateral Consequences of Arrest & Conviction: Law Policy & Practice (West/NACDL, 4th ed. 2021). Also, as readers might be aware, the American Law Institute, as part of its overhaul of the Model Penal Code’s sex offense-related provisions, has tentatively approved a slate of reforms advocating a vastly reduced approach to registration and discontinuation of community notification. (We plan a post about the MPC’s important new model in the near future.)
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.