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Case Law Summary

Sex Offender Registration and Notification in the United States
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III. Legal Challenges/Issues

Nearly all individuals who are required to register as sex offenders must do so because they have been convicted of a criminal offense.[166] As such, by the time an individual is actually required to register, he or she has already gone through criminal proceedings, including trial and sentencing, and has been afforded a number of associated constitutional protections.[167] Nevertheless, offenders still often raise constitutional or other legal challenges to their registration requirements.

A. Constitutional Challenges

1. Commerce Clause

Under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause,[168] Congress has the power to regulate commerce among states and with foreign nations and Indian tribes. Courts have held that, in enacting SORNA, Congress acted within its powers under the Commerce Clause.[169]

2. Necessary and Proper Clause

The Necessary and Proper Clause provides Congress with the ability to make the laws required to exercise its powers established by the U.S. Constitution.[170] The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress power to enact SORNA and to apply SORNA’s registration requirements to federal offenders who completed their sentences before SORNA’s enactment.[171]

3. Bill of Attainder Clause

The Bill of Attainder Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits legislative acts that apply to a specific set of individuals and that inflict punishment without a judicial trial.[172] At least one case has addressed the application of SORNA and whether it violates the Bill of Attainder Clause.[173]

4. Full Faith and Credit Clause

The Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires states to honor the laws, records, and all court rulings from all other states.[174] The U.S. Supreme Court has noted that “the full faith and credit clause does not require one state to substitute for its own statute, applicable to persons and events within it, the conflicting statute of another state, even though the statute is of controlling force in the courts of the state of its enactment.”[175] It also “cannot be used by one state to interfere impermissibly with the exclusive affairs of another”[176] and “[e]nforcement measures do not travel with the sister state judgment.”[177]

Arguments based on the Full Faith and Credit Clause typically arise when an offender moves to another jurisdiction and is required to register in the new jurisdiction, even though the offender’s duty to register in the originating jurisdiction has been terminated.[178]

5. Supremacy Clause

The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires that the U.S. Constitution and federal laws take priority over any conflicting rules of state law.[179] Under the Supremacy Clause, federal law preempts local law that interferes with or conflicts with federal law.[180] In a handful of cases, offenders have unsuccessfully alleged that application of state sex offender registration laws conflict with SORNA in violation of the Supremacy Clause.[181]

6. Right to Travel

The right to interstate travel is a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.[182] However, the right to interstate travel is not absolute and offenders’ challenges to SORNA and state sex offender registration and notification laws on this basis typically fail.[183]

7. Separation of Powers and Nondelegation Doctrine

Under the separation of powers doctrine, governmental authority is divided into three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—with each branch having specific duties on which the other branches cannot encroach.[184] The U.S. Constitution confers certain legislative powers on the U.S. Congress,[185] and the nondelegation doctrine prohibits Congress from transferring its legislative power to another branch of government.[186] In 2019, in Gundy v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that SORNA’s delegation of authority to the U.S. Attorney General to issue regulations under 34 U.S.C. § 20913 does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s nondelegation doctrine.[187] Similar arguments have been raised by offenders at the state level, where offenders have unsuccessfully argued that the state’s registration requirements violate separation of powers or are an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power or authority.[188]

8. Ex Post Facto

Sex offender registration and notification laws are meant to serve a regulatory function, and the majority of courts that have addressed the issue, including every circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, except the Federal Circuit, have held that state registration and notification requirements[189] and sex offender registration under SORNA is nonpunitive and/or a collateral consequence of a conviction.[190] However, some courts have interpreted state registration and notification requirements to constitute punishment.[191] This interpretation impacts how courts analyze constitutional challenges to offenders’ duty to register, such as ex post facto challenges and challenges under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments.[192]

There has been extensive debate regarding whether the retroactive application of SORNA’s registration requirements violates the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the retroactive application of criminal laws.[193] Notably, all of the U.S. Court of Appeals—except the District of Columbia and the Federal Circuit, which have not addressed the issue—have held that the federal version of SORNA does not violate the federal Ex Post Facto Clause.[194]

Retroactive application of state sex offender registration and notification laws has also been addressed at both the federal and state level, and while many state laws have been found not to violate state or federal ex post facto prohibitions,[195] multiple state and federal courts have held that retroactive application of their state’s sex offender registration and notification laws violate their respective constitutions and/or the U.S. Constitution.[196]

Ex post facto challenges often arise when an offender who was convicted prior to passage of SORNA is required to register or where a jurisdiction makes changes to its sex offender registration requirements resulting in an offender’s registration requirements beginning, or becoming more burdensome, after the offender has been sentenced,[197] where an offender’s classification is changed,[198] or when an offender’s information is made publicly available on a jurisdiction’s public registry.[199]

9. First Amendment / Internet & Social Media

The First Amendment protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.[200] There are several instances in which an offender’s First Amendment rights may be implicated in connection with sex offender registration, including, for example, internet and social media restrictions,[201] collection of internet identifiers[202] and other personal registration information,[203] limitations on sex offenders’ changing their names,[204] requiring identification as a “sex offender” on an offender’s license,[205] and requiring offenders to post signs announcing their status as sex offenders.[206] Offenders have also unsuccessfully attempted to challenge SORNA, more generally, under the First Amendment, by alleging that requiring them to provide registration information constitutes compelled speech.[207]

10. Fourth Amendment / Unreasonable Search & Seizure

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.[208] Fourth Amendment challenges to sex offender registration and notification requirements are often raised in connection with the imposition of GPS or satellite-based monitoring.[209] Additionally, offenders have also unsuccessfully argued that home visits[210] and the collection of internet identifiers,[211] DNA,[212] and other registry information,[213] violate their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

11. Fifth Amendment / Takings & Double Jeopardy, Self-Incrimination

The Fifth Amendment requires the government compensate citizens when it takes private property for public use, forbids “double jeopardy,” and protects against self-incrimination.[214] Offenders have unsuccessfully raised claims alleging violation of their Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination[215] as well as claims alleging violation of double jeopardy, especially as it pertains to failure to register prosecutions.[216] Fifth Amendment claims based on the Takings Clause often arise in connection with state sex offender residency restrictions.[217]

12. Sixth Amendment / Right to Jury Trial & Ineffective Assistance of Counsel & Apprendi v. New Jersey

The Sixth Amendment affords individuals with the right to a speedy and public trial and the right to have assistance of counsel for their defense.[218] Challenges based on ineffective assistance of counsel often arise in failure to register cases where offenders allege their attorney failed to advise them that a conviction would require registration as a sex offender.[219] Ineffective assistance of counsel claims also arise when an offender enters into a guilty plea and later argues that the plea was not knowing, voluntary, and intelligent because of counsel’s failure to provide notice of the duty to register as a sex offender,[220] or where counsel misrepresents or incorrectly states the offender’s duty to register.[221] However, the Sixth Amendment does not require attorneys to inform their clients of a conviction’s collateral consequences.[222]

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”[223] As a result of Apprendi, additional challenges to sex offender registration requirements have been raised by sex offenders who allege that registration is punitive and therefore, argue that a jury must determine whether or not they should be required to register.[224]

13. Eighth Amendment / Cruel & Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from imposing excessive fines and protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment.[225] Offenders often challenge sex offender registration requirements under the Eighth Amendment by alleging that requiring registration amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.[226]

14. Tenth Amendment / Federalism

The Tenth Amendment outlines the principle of federalism, which distinguishes the relationship between the federal government and states and reserves to the states all powers that the U.S. Constitution does not delegate to the federal government or prohibit to the states.[227] Offenders have raised Tenth Amendment commandeering arguments, claiming that enforcement of SORNA violates the Tenth Amendment because it forces state officials to register sex offenders in compliance with SORNA.[228]

15. Fourteenth Amendment / Due Process & Equal Protection

The Fourteenth Amendment protects an individual’s right to due process and equal protection.[229]

The Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”[230] and protects both procedural[231] and substantive due process.[232] A variety of challenges to sex offender laws have been raised under the federal Due Process Clause, including, among others,[233] challenges to (1) offenders’ requirement to register;[234] (2) offenders’ classifications or tier;[235] (3) public notification requirements;[236] (3) determinations as to what constitutes a “sex offense,”[237] being labeled as a sex offender,[238] or an inherently dangerous offender;[239] and (4) being required to register as a condition of parole or supervised release.[240]

Under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, no state may “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”[241] Equal protection challenges often arise where sex offender registration statutes treat similarly situated individuals differently.[242]

B. State Constitution Issues

Occasionally, challenges to sex offender registration and notification laws based on unique rights guaranteed by a jurisdiction’s Constitution may also arise,[243] including claims that sex offender registration requirements violate an offender’s due process right to reputation[244] and a state constitution’s “single subject” rule.[245]

C. Other Legal Issues

A variety of other legal issues may also arise from an offender’s status as a “sex offender,” from being required to register as a sex offender, or where an offender has failed to register as a sex offender.

1. Administrative Procedure Act

Federal agencies often develop and issue rules and regulations to help clarify how certain laws should be applied and enforced. In doing so, they must comply with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).[246] Some litigation has ensued in which offenders argue that certain sex offender registration and notification requirements under SORNA should not be applied to them due to the Attorney General’s failure to comply with the procedural requirements set forth by the APA. There is currently a circuit split over whether the Attorney General properly complied with the APA in enacting the interim rule[247] applying SORNA to offenders who committed sex offenses prior to its passage.[248]

2. Americans With Disabilities Act

In at least one instance, an offender alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act based on his status as a sex offender. However, sex offender status does not qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.[249]

3. Child Custody

Being required to register as a sex offender can also have an impact on an individual’s parental rights, including child custody.[250] In at least one state, there is a statutory presumption against any registered sex offender being granted unsupervised visitation, custody, or residential placement of a child.[251]

4. Civil Commitment

Under both federal and state law, certain individuals who are deemed to be “sexually dangerous” or “sexually violent” may be involuntarily civilly committed. The Adam Walsh Act authorizes additional civil commitment of an individual who is already in federal custody if the government can show that he or she is a “sexually dangerous person.”[252] Although civil commitment is generally considered to be a collateral consequence,[253] civil commitment statutes have still regularly been challenged.[254] Notably, the constitutionality of the federal civil commitment statute has been upheld on various grounds.[255]

5. Conditions of Supervised Release & United States v. Haymond

Special conditions of supervised release may be imposed on offenders so long as they are reasonably related to the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the offender and do not involve any greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary. Courts have grappled with the constitutionality of various special conditions of supervised release that have been imposed on sex offenders, including the requirement to register as a sex offender,[256] limitations or complete bans on internet access,[257] restricting access to minor children,[258] prohibiting access to pornographic materials,[259] requiring participation in sex offender assessments or treatment[260] and polygraph exams,[261] and GPS or electronic monitoring.[262]

Federal law outlines both mandatory and discretionary conditions of probation and supervised release that are to be imposed by the sentencing court.[263]

In United States v. Haymond, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the last two sentences of 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k), which provide for a mandatory revocation of supervised release and concomitant term of imprisonment for individuals who are required to register under SORNA and commit certain crimes while on supervised release, were unconstitutional and violated the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.[264]

6. Defamation

Defamation is a civil tort action that can be pursued when an individual’s reputation in the community has been injured by false or malicious statements, and it has served as the basis of some sex offenders’ claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[265]

7. Fair Credit Reporting Act

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act regulates the collection, maintenance, and disclosure of consumers’ personal credit information, and often comes into play when a sex offender must undergo a background check.[266] Challenges under the law have been raised with limited success.[267]

8. Firearms

Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from possessing a firearm.[268] Several jurisdictions have similar laws, some of which are specific to individuals convicted of sex offenses.[269]

9. Habeas Corpus / Post-Conviction Relief—State Custody (28 U.S.C. § 2254) & “In Custody”

Offenders who have exhausted all other remedies under state law and who are trying to challenge the constitutionality of their state registration requirements often seek federal habeas corpus relief.[270] Under the federal habeas corpus statute, an individual may petition the court for a writ only if he or she is “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court” where he or she “is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”[271] For the purposes of habeas corpus relief, an offender must establish that he or she is “in custody” before the court will consider the offender’s petition.[272] The majority of courts to consider this issue have held that sex offender registration, alone, does not make an offender “in custody” for purposes of habeas corpus relief.[273]

10. Housing

Sex offenders who are subject to a lifetime registration requirement under state or federal law are generally prohibited from admission to federally assisted housing.[274] Some jurisdictions also prohibit sex offenders from living in campus student housing at a public institution of higher learning.[275]

11. Immigration & Deportation

Under the Adam Walsh Act, an individual who is convicted of a specified offense against a minor is prohibited from filing a petition to sponsor a family member or fiancée unless the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security determines that the offender poses no risk to the individual on whose behalf the petition is filed.[276] Additionally, offenders who commit crimes involving moral turpitude are subject to deportation.[277] In some cases, convictions for failure to register as a sex offender have also triggered deportation proceedings.[278] Other immigration and deportation issues may also arise for individuals who are required to register as sex offenders.[279]

12. Sentencing Enhancement Under Federal Law (18 U.S.C. § 2260A)

Sentencing enhancements exist under both federal and state law and provide courts with the ability to increase an offender’s sentence beyond the normal range for a variety of reasons. Under 18 U.S.C. § 2260A, an individual who commits certain felony offenses involving a minor while required to register as a sex offender are subject to enhanced penalties, including a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence which must run consecutively to any other sentences imposed.[280] Application of § 2260A depends on an offender’s registration status at the time the offender committed the predicate offense[281] and violation of the statute does not require a minor’s actual involvement in the underlying offense.[282] Additionally, retroactive application of § 2260A, the federal sentencing enhancement statute, does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause.[283]