Federal judiciary finally sees light: Restrictions are punishment

By DAVID POST . . . I wanted to add a few words to co-blogger Jonathan Adler’s posting about the recent 6th Circuit decision in Doe v. Snyder, in which the court voided application of the Michigan Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) on the grounds that it imposes retroactive punishment on previously convicted sex offenders in violation of the constitutional prohibition against Ex Post Facto laws.

The decision is an especially important one, possibly signaling, in Mark Stern’s words over on Slate, that “the judiciary has finally begun to view draconian sex offender laws as the unconstitutional monstrosities they obviously are.”

Here’s the case, in a nutshell. The Michigan SORA is typical of the schemes in place in all of the 50 states. Beginning in the mid-’90s, states (with federal encouragement and financial assistance) began requiring all those who had been convicted at any point in the past of having committed a “sex offense” — typically defined, as in the federal statute (42 USC 16911), as “a criminal offense that has an element involving a sexual act or sexual contact with another”** — to provide a wide range of identifying information (names, addresses, places of employment, schools being attended, vehicle make and model, etc.) to law enforcement officials. This information was then placed in state-operated, publicly accessible sex offender registry databases.

** Definitions of the “sex offenses” that require registration vary state by state. While a number of truly heinous and deplorable crimes — rape, assault, child molestation — are included, so too, as detailed in a survey by Human Rights Watch, are many lesser crimes, such as soliciting or providing adult prostitution services (five states), public urination (13 states), consensual sex between teenagers (29 states) and exposing genitals in public (32 states).

Several of these early SORAs were challenged on ex post facto grounds, on the theory that the registration and public notification schemes imposed additional punishment retroactively, i.e., on individuals whose crimes had been committed, and who had been convicted, before the SORA legislation had taken effect (and, indeed, on individuals who had completed serving whatever period of punishment and probation or parole had been imposed upon them, and who therefore, at least in theory, possessed the same constitutional rights as you or me).

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. In Smith v. Doe, 538 US 84 (1999), the Court held that the registration and public notification provisions of Alaska’s SORA didn’t constitute ex post facto imposition of punishment because they were not “punitive,” but rather “regulatory”: “clearly intended as a civil, non-punitive means of identifying previous offenders for the protection of the public.” The “stigma and adverse community reactions” that could result from registration did not render the Act punitive because “the dissemination of the registration information, which was largely a matter of public record, did not constitute the imposition of any significant affirmative disability or restraint.”

Please see David’s full analysis at The Volokh Conspiracy in the Washington Post.

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