CHICAGO (CN) — The Seventh Circuit on Thursday sided with the Indiana Department of Corrections in its long-running crusade to place six men on its sex offender list.
The appellate court's decision reverses a lower court ruling which found that Indiana's 1994 Sex Offender Registration Act violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. It's the latest blow to the plaintiffs in a six-and-a-half-year legal battle over the controversial law.
The battle began in October 2016, when two men placed on the SORA registry sued the Indiana DOC for the law's alleged constitutional deficiencies. SORA mandates that those on sex offender lists in other states must also register as sex offenders in Indiana if they live or work there. It also contains a provision stating that convicted sex offenders moving to Indiana from another state must register even if their offense took place before the enactment of the law.
This contrasts with the law's treatment of those who committed sex offenses while living in Indiana prior to SORA's 1994 enactment, and those who continued to live in Indiana after their pre-SORA offense. Those in-state offenders don't have to register if they weren't required to do so prior to SORA or its subsequent revisions taking effect.
The pair of men, soon joined by four others on the Indiana sex offender list, claimed SORA inhibited their constitutional right to travel across state lines, and violated the state's ex post facto clause as well as the federal equal protection clause. The men all committed their alleged offenses prior to SORA's enactment, and all but one of them were convicted outside Indiana. State law enforcement placed them all on the SORA registry upon their return to Indiana from other parts of the U.S., but the men argued that the state had punished them more severely than in-state offenders under a law that didn't exist at the time of their convictions.
In a July 2019 ruling from the Southern District of Indiana, U.S. District Judge Richard Young agreed. The Bill Clinton appointee barred the state from applying SORA penalties to the six men, which in turn prompted the Indiana Department of Corrections to appeal his decision to the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit. An appellate panel granted the case an en banc - or full court - hearing, and in August 2021 the circuit judges overturned Young's ruling on the plaintiffs' travel and ex post facto claims.
In the 7-3 majority opinion, the Donald Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Amy St. Eve wrote that SORA penalties affect in-state offenders the same as the six plaintiffs.
“SORA may affect newer residents disproportionately, but it does not discriminate based on residency. Consequently, it does not violate the right to travel as the Supreme Court has articulated it," St. Eve wrote in the 2021 opinion.
The circuit judges then remanded the equal protection claims to Young, who last May again agreed with the six plaintiffs that SORA violated the 14th Amendment. He compared two hypothetical northwest Indiana residents - one who works in Gary and another who commutes to nearby Chicago - to make his point.
"A pre-SORA offender who lives in Indiana but works in Chicago must register in Indiana, whereas a pre-SORA offender who works in Gary—but is otherwise identical in all respects—is exempt from the requirement," Young wrote in his May 2022 ruling, adding that "there is no reason to believe the Chicago commuter poses any more danger to Hoosiers than the Gary employee. Thus, there is no legitimate reason for the state to require the Chicago commuter to register but not the Gary employee."
For at least one of the men, Young's rulings proved life-changing. Plaintiff Brian Hope, who claimed to have suffered chronic unemployment and homelessness stemming from his SORA registration, said in 2022 that after Young's 2019 decision he was able to secure a steady job and a home.
The Indiana DOC appealed Young's 2022 ruling regardless. Following oral arguments in January, a conservative appellate panel decided Thursday to reverse it. The panel – consisting of St. Eve, fellow Donald Trump appointee U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Kirsch and Ronald Reagan appointee U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook – opined Indiana law enforcement had a legitimate interest in preventing the state from becoming a "sanctuary" for out-of-state sex offenders.
"SORA’s other-jurisdiction provision satisfies rational basis review because the state has a legitimate interest in seeking to register as many sex offenders as the state constitution permits, and SORA’s other-jurisdiction provision is rationally related to advancing that interest," Kirsch wrote in the six-page opinion.
The panel also deferred to multiple decisions by the Indiana Supreme Court regarding the scope of SORA penalties. In Kirsch's view, those decisions established that requiring pre-SORA, out-of-state offenders to register on Indiana's sex offender list did not unduly punish them compared to their SORA-exempt Hoosier counterparts.
"Because these offenders are already subject to the stigma of being publicly identified as a sex offender by another state, the Indiana Supreme Court reasoned that requiring them to also register in Indiana has a much smaller impact than on someone who has never been required to register," Kirsch wrote.
Kirsch admitted that SORA classification rules as they stand are "imperfect," noting apparent baffles in the Indiana Constitution.
Nevertheless, he wrote, "Requiring offenders who are already subject to the burdens of registration elsewhere rationally promotes public safety through the maintenance of a sex-offender registry that is as complete as the Indiana Constitution permits."Follow @@djbyrnes1
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