Federal Judge Strikes Down Michigan Sex Offender Registry Law

(CN) – A federal judge struck a major blow Friday to a Michigan sex-offender registration law, declaring large portions of the law unconstitutional and that the law cannot apply at all to offenders whose last offense was before 2011.

The decision settles one of the latest in a lengthy series of lawsuits brought by Michigan sex offenders against the state’s Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA), originally passed in 1994. The lawsuit was brought in 2016 by a group of John Doe sex offenders, all of whose offenses occurred before the act underwent amendments in 2006 and 2011.

The first of those made it illegal for offenders to live, work or loiter within 1,000 feet of a school, and the second required them to immediately report any new email or instant message accounts, phone numbers and vehicle license plates to police.

Those provisions, U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled, are too vague. The reporting rules for email and message accounts and phone numbers are also unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to Cleland.

Since the amendments are not severable from the law itself, Cleland wrote, the anonymous plaintiffs and their fellow pre-2011 offenders are free from the law and its registration requirements in their entirety.

Cleland’s decision follows a Sixth Circuit opinion in an earlier case by another group of John Does, which held that the amendments were effectively punitive and therefore could not be retroactively applied to the pre-amendment offenders pleading that case.

The Michigan Supreme Court is currently dealing with many of the same issues in another case, People v. Betts. The state pointed this out, hoping to stay judgment on the law, but Cleland ruled that option out.

“The ‘novel’ question of state law at issue in Betts— whether SORA amounts to punishment—is no longer a relevant question to this court at this stage in the case,” Cleland wrote.

At issue in this case was whether the amendments are severable from the law, he said — an issue that the Supreme Court may not get around to ruling on.

Meanwhile, Cleland wrote, Michigan’s fairly broad severability clause cannot apply to SORA’s amendments since the 2011 amendments “effectively rewrote the statute.”

“Removing the deeply ingrained 2011 amendments renders the statute, as Plaintiffs’ (sic) aptly describe, a ‘nonsensical alphabet soup’ of sentence fragments,” he wrote.

The many iterations SORA has gone through since its passage would also complicate any attempt to revive an older version of the law far too much for the court to take on such a task, Cleland wrote. That will fall to the legislature, which Cleland notes has had plenty of time to prepare.

“The parties, and this court, expected that the Sixth Circuit’s ruling would spur legislative action, and for some time, it appeared that the legislature was poised to pass a new and comprehensive statute, obviating the need for this opinion. Unfortunately, the legislature was not able to finalize a new registration statute,” he wrote. “The court anticipates that its ruling will reignite efforts to finalize a new, unified registration statute that can survive constitutional review, as has the national model.”

The ACLU of Michigan applauded the decision on Twitter and its website.

“The registry is an ineffective and bloated system that makes Michigan communities less safe by making it more difficult for survivors to report abuse, sabotaging people’s efforts to reenter society, and wasting scarce police resources on hyper-technicalities,” the organization’s senior staff attorney, Miriam Auckerman, said.

She added, “Today’s decision means that lawmakers must finally do their jobs and pass evidence-based laws that better serve everyone. Michigan families deserve true reform that prioritizes public safety and prevention, not a failed registry.”

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