Scores of folks have sent me emails generated by a group called Citizens for Change, America. They want me to hear their cries for justice, and to sign on to the fight to have the courts declare retroactive application of the federal sex offender registration act unconstitutional. My first response to the emails was a weary sigh. The ex post facto clause is tricky, and most folks don’t get just how it has been gutted by the courts.
The last time the federal Supreme Court heard an ex post facto challenge to sex offender registration was in 2003, involving an Alaska decision. The Smith v. Doe decision ruled that requiring a convicted sex offender to register as an offender is not a violation of the ex post facto clause of the federal constitution even if the registration requirement did not exist at the time a person was convicted.
The ex post facto clause prohibits lawmakers from passing laws that impose or increase punishment for criminal offenses after the acts are committed. But the law applies only to criminal laws, and not to civil laws. Most courts reason that registration requirements are not punishment, they are mere incidents, or consequences, of a criminal conviction. The purpose of registration, these courts say, is not punitive; registration exists merely to protect the public, and are civil in scope and purpose.
This is, of course, threadbare nonsense to the 700,000 or so folks required to register throughout the United States. These folks are publicly identified as pariahs long after they have paid their debt to society by way of the criminal sanction.
A recent article in the Fall 2010 edition of the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy, Putting the Brakes on the Preventive State: Challenging Residency Restrictions on Child Sex Offenders in Illinois Under the Ex Post Facto Clause, by Michelle Olson, is a model of the sort of pragmatic scholarship that litigants can put to use in test cases. Olson argues persuasively that traditional arguments about the ex post facto clause are losing their persuasive force as lawmakers yield to moral panic over sex crimes.
Focusing on recent changes in Illinois law imposing residency restrictions on those convicted of child sex offenses, Olson paints a portrait of a body of law that grows without constitutional constraint. Lawmakers are quick to pass new legislation, fearing the reaction at the polling place if they should appear to have cold feet about isolating sex offenders of all sorts. It matters not whether an offender is convicted of violent rape or public indecency, lumping all offenders into one group and then dumping them into seeming virtual concentration camps is all the rage among lawmakers. The courts, it seems, are content to let this occur, relying on old and ancient understandings of the ex post facto clauses in the federal and state constitutions that regard registration as a mere civil incident to a criminal conviction.
But there is hope, Olson nots. The Supreme Courts of Kentucky, Indiana and Louisiana have recently ruled that retroactive registration requirements cross the divide from mere civil consequences to something akin to penal laws. Although the public rationale for registration is protecting the public, a registration regime that fails to distinguish those likely to cause harm from those who do not is irrational. What’s more, these statutes sometimes require folks who were never even convicted of a sex offense to register. And what of the folks who are forced from family homes and support because they live too near to a school? Is it sound public policy to render folks who have served their sentence homeless?
Olson’s article opened my eyes to broad new possibilities in the fight for sensible sex offender registration laws. It is my understanding that Louisiana’s Supreme Court has also declared retroactive registration to violate the state’s ex post facto clause. The federal Supreme Court’s recent decision recognizing the importance of the collateral consequences of a conviction for non-citizens in the Padilla case also suggests that the high Court may be prepared to recognize that the line separating criminal and civil laws isn’t as bright as was once thought.
States are often regarded as laboratories by the federal Supreme Court. Lawmakers in the fifty states experiment with laws and legal doctrines often well before an issue reaches the United States Supreme Court. If three state Supreme Courts have found reason to regard retroactive registration requirements as offensive since Smith v. Doe, there is hope additional states will follow suit. In time, there may well be grounds sufficient to return to the United States Supreme Court with a case testing new federal registration requirements.
To all those who have written urging me to take a look, thank you. I have done so. I’m in.