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House OKs court-ordered changes to Michigan's sex offender registry

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan House on Wednesday approved legislation that would usher in big changes to the state's Sex Offender Registration Act after a federal district judge earlier this year declared it unconstitutional and urged the Legislature to change the law. 

Detroit U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland in February said if lawmakers didn't change the law in 2020, the act would no longer be enforceable against those who offended before 2011.

The changes approved 80-24 by the House would eliminate sections of the law that are considered unconstitutional, including school safety zones and certain registration requirements. The changes bring the state law more in line with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. 

Michigan House of Representatives, 2018.

"We needed to find a way to rework it if we wanted a registry at all," said the bill's sponsor Rep. Jim Lower, R-Eureka Township.

Lower said he worked closely with the Michigan State Police and Attorney General Dana Nessel on the bill, and further changes could be made before the Senate signs off on the legislation. 

The 1994 law, which initially called for a private database accessible to the Michigan State Police, was amended by legislators several times in the past 20 years.

Most notably, in 2006, lawmakers prohibited registered sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of a school and, in 2011, required registrants to appear in person at police departments "immediately" to update information such as their address, phone number, email address or a new vehicle. 

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the changes were not only unconstitutionally retroactive punishment, but were "very burdensome" and akin to "the ancient punishment of banishment."

In May 2019, Cleland declared the provisions unconstitutional and vague and said lawmakers need to fix the law.  

Essentially, the Legislature was forced to eliminate the school safety zone provision by the court ruling. But the law also had implementation issues, said Rep. Graham Filler, a former assistant attorney general and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"The reality is there was no enforcement, and it's not like they’re checking individuals’ IDs before they come to a school soccer game," the DeWitt Republican said. 

The bill adjusted several registration requirements including immediate in-person appearances to change information such as email addresses, "internet identifiers," addresses or vehicle information.

In some cases, the bill creates a wider time period for those reports and allows the state police to adopt reporting methods other than in-person. 

"Not having them go in person for registration changes — phone, address, email — is a big difference as well in terms of lessening the burden," Lower said. 

The legislation requires offenders to be removed from the registry if their crime had been expunged or if the individual was sentenced under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act. 

Legislators held hours of hearings on the changes in April and May and have worked with  stakeholders throughout the last several months, Filler said. 

Overall, the legislation implements "common sense" fixes to the law that not only save it from being completely overturned but also make Michigan's justice system more proportional, he said.

"What we’re doing is saving SORA (Sex Offender Registration Act)," Filler said. "If we did not make the changes on school safety zones and registration requirements, SORA would be knocked down.”