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.
In the past week, there were two notable developments regarding the constitutionality of state sex offender registration schemes.
First, as noted by Douglas A. Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed highly significant amicus briefs in two Michigan Supreme Court cases, “arguing that Michigan’s sex offender registration and notification requirements are punishment because they are so burdensome and fail to distinguish between dangerous offenders and those who are not a threat to the community.” Both of the Michigan cases involve constitutional challenges under the Ex Post Facto Clause to the retroactive application of the state registration requirement. Michigan v Snyder, No. 153696; People v. Betts, No. 148981.
In the second development, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins of the Middle District of Alabama on Monday held that Alabama’s sex offender registration law (“ASORCNA”) violates the First Amendment by branding state-issued ID cards with “CRIMINAL SEX OFFENDER” and imposing extensive internet-use reporting requirements. Doe v. Marshall, No. 2:15-CV-606-WKW (M.D. Ala. Feb. 11, 2019). This case presents an interesting twist on the now-vulnerable theory espoused by the U.S. Supreme Court and many states that sex offender registration is not “punishment.”
These two caselaw developments are discussed further below.
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.
The Cumberland County (Pennsylvania) Sentinel recently published a series of articles by Joshua Vaughn that examine the operation and effect of sex offender registration laws from a variety of perspectives. We summarize the articles with links to the Sentinel’s website.
Finding statistics to fit a narrative
Vaughn traces the “frightening and high risk of recidivism” for untreated sex offenders that Justice Kennedy used to support the Supreme Court’s holdings in McKune v. Lile (2002) and Smith v. Doe (2003) to an unsourced “anecdotal quip” in a 1986 article from Psychology Today suggesting sex offender recidivism rates as high as 80%. That figure found its way into a Justice Department practitioner’s guide for treating incarcerated sex offenders, which in turn was cited by the Solicitor General’s amicus brief in McKune. Vaughn, asking how such a questionable statistic could turn out to be a “linchpin fact” in two extremely influential Supreme Court cases, proposes that the Court relied on the Solicitor General, who in turn relied on the practice guide without doing his own research.
Vaughn reports that the Justice Department “now states on its website that the rate at which released sexual offenders are rearrested for new sexual offenses is as low as 3 to 10 percent,” evidently referring to a report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
On April 6, Arizona became the latest state to offer early relief from sex offender registration obligations to young people convicted of consensual sex offenses and sentenced to probation. The law, HB 2539, allows individuals convicted before reaching age 22 of sexual conduct with a minor between the ages of 15 and 17 (so-called “Romeo and Juliet” offenders), to petition the court for relief from registration after completing probation. If a petitioner meets all applicable criteria, the court must grant the petition unless it finds that a “denial is in the best interests of justice or tends to ensure the safety of the public.” Similar laws authorizing early termination from registration for those convicted of youthful consensual offenses are in effect in ten other states, including Florida, Oregon, and Michigan.
Laws requiring young people to register have come under increased scrutiny thanks to recent media coverage of their harsh effects and flimsy justifications — notably an article by Sarah Stillman published last month in the New Yorker (“The List”). Much of the attention to registry of juveniles has been driven by mobilization around the issue by advocacy groups like Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) and the Center on Youth Registration Reform (CYRR). In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a ground-breaking report on the issue, Raised on the Registry.
Last week a federal judge heard the first arguments in a lawsuit challenging certain provisions of the recently-enacted International Megan’s Law (IML),* including one mandating that the passport of any American required to register for a sex offense involving a minor be marked in “a conspicuous location” with a “unique identifier” of their sex offender status. Other challenged provisions of the law authorize the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to notify destination nations of forthcoming visits from those individuals. On Wednesday the court heard a motion for a preliminary injunction that would block enforcement of the challenged provisions of the law pending the suit’s final outcome. See Doe v. Kerry, Case 3:16-cv-00654 (N.D. Ca.).