Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that “sweeping” conditions imposed retroactively under Michigan’s sex offender registry law were unconstitutionally punitive.
Michigan had appealed a 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision in 2016 that said retroactively applying changes to people already on the list would unconstitutionally increase punishments after offenders’ convictions. The Article 1 of the Constitution bars the states from passing any “ex post facto law,” meaning ones that increase or decrease punishment after the fact.
By declining to hear the case in a Monday order, the nation’s highest court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan filed the suit in 2012 with the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program on behalf of five plaintiff offenders.
The ACLU said Monday’s ruling effectively requires state lawmakers to replace the existing law on sex registries, which they called “bloated and ineffective.”
“Courts have repeatedly recognized that Michigan’s sex offender registry is not just unconstitutional, but it’s an abject failure,” ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney Miriam Aukerman said in a statement.
“Our communities deserve effective public-safety measures that are based in facts and research, not wasteful and counterproductive policies based in fear.”
Michigan said it revised its law in response to a 2006 federal law imposing minimum standards for sex-offender registries. States that fail to follow those minimum standards can lose out on federal law-enforcement funds. Michigan argued that the case was important to all states trying to comply with federal law.
“We will work with the governor and the State Police on next steps,” said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.
The retroactive changes to the state registry law in 2006 and 2011 included prohibiting registrants from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of a school, and a requirement that registrants be divided into tiers based on their crime of conviction.
Registrants were also supposed to appear in person to update their information, such as new addresses, vehicles or email addresses.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit unanimously ruled last year that the Michigan statute as amended imposed “sweeping” conditions that resemble “in some respects at least, the ancient punishment of banishment” and “some traditional shaming punishments,” finding the geographical restrictions “very burdensome,” particularly in densely populated areas.
The judges said effect of the retroactive changes was imposing punishment after the offenders’ convictions and was therefore unconstitutional.
The statute “brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction,” wrote Judge Alice Batchelder, an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush, for the panel.
“It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins, not only of society, but often, as the record in this case makes painfully evident, from their own families, with whom, due to school zone restrictions, they may not even live.”
Batchelder’s decision was joined by Judges Gilbert Merritt, a former President Jimmy Carter appointee, and Bernice Donald, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.
The Associated Press contributed
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