Court: Michigan sex offender rules cannot be retroactive
Lansing — Significant changes to Michigan’s sex offender registry law cannot be applied retroactively to thousands of sex offenders because the revisions unconstitutionally stiffen the punishment of offenders after their convictions, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed part of a lower-court ruling, saying the state could not impose harsher restrictions enacted in 2006 and 2011 on offenders who were convicted before the law was changed. The court said the revisions, which include restricting offenders’ movement near schools, penalize sex offenders as “moral lepers.”
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland ruled last year that those changes could be imposed retroactively.
A spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, which maintains the state’s sex offender registry, said the agency was reviewing the ruling to determine its impact. The state attorney general’s office also was reviewing the decision, a spokeswoman said.
Michigan — which has the country’s fourth-largest sex offender list, with 42,700 registrants — began prohibiting registrants from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of a school in 2006. Five years later, lawmakers required that offenders be divided into three tiers based on the seriousness of their crimes, rather than on individualized assessments.
Some offenders must be listed on the registry for life under the changes.
“As dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under the guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice,” Judge Alice Batchelder wrote for the three-judge panel ruling in the case, joined by Judges Gilbert Merritt and Bernice Donald.
The court said the sex offender registry law’s geographical restrictions are “very burdensome,” especially in densely populated communities. The law “resembles, in some respects at least, the ancient punishment of banishment,” Batchelder wrote.
The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of six people who are on the registry for life, including some who were older teenagers who had sex with underage teens. ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman said the decision shows that the registry “is broken.”
Critics argue that the registry lists so many people that it doesn’t identify the truly dangerous offenders.
The five men and one woman who filed the lawsuit have children. Two of them were 18 and 19 when they had sexual relationships with 14-year-olds. Another man was 23 when he had sex with a girl under age 16 he met at a nightclub restricted to people aged 18 or older — and the two are now married, according to his lawyer.
In March 2015, Cleland declared portions of the law unconstitutional. The judge said the loitering definition was so vague that offenders were unable to determine if they could attend a parent-teacher conference.
Cleland also nullified some reporting rules as vague, such as requiring offenders to immediately report to law enforcement in person after getting a new email address, instant message account or “any other designations used in Internet communications or postings.”
The appellate court did not address those portions of the lower judge’s decision.
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