August 25, 2016
Sixth Circuit panel concludes Michigan sex offender registration amendments “imposes punishment” and thus are ex post unconstitutional for retroactive application
In a significant panel ruling today, the Sixth Circuit has concluded in Does v. Snyder, No. 15-1536 (6th Cir. Aug. 25, 2016) (available here) that Michigan’s amendments to its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) “imposes punishment” and thus the state violates the US Constitution when applying these SORA provisions retroactively. Here is some of the concluding analysis from the unanimous panel decision reaching this result:
So, is SORA’s actual effect punitive? Many states confronting similar laws have said “yes.” See, e.g., Doe v. State, 111 A.3d 1077, 1100 (N.H. 2015); State v. Letalien, 985 A.2d 4, 26 (Me. 2009); Starkey v. Oklahoma Dep’t of Corr., 305 P.3d 1004 (Okla. 2013); Commonwealth v. Baker, 295 S.W.3d 437 (Ky. 2009); Doe v. State, 189 P.3d 999, 1017 (Alaska 2008). And we agree. In reaching this conclusion, we are mindful that, as Smith makes clear, states are free to pass retroactive sex-offender registry laws and that those challenging an ostensibly non-punitive civil law must show by the “clearest proof” that the statute in fact inflicts punishment. But difficult is not the same as impossible. Nor should Smith be understood as writing a blank check to states to do whatever they please in this arena.
A regulatory regime that severely restricts where people can live, work, and “loiter,” that categorizes them into tiers ostensibly corresponding to present dangerousness without any individualized assessment thereof, and that requires time-consuming and cumbersome in-person reporting, all supported by — at best — scant evidence that such restrictions serve the professed purpose of keeping Michigan communities safe, is something altogether different from and more troubling than Alaska’s first-generation registry law. SORA brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction. 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. It directly regulates where registrants may go in their daily lives and compels them to interrupt those lives with great frequency in order to appear in person before law enforcement to report even minor changes to their information.
We conclude that Michigan’s SORA imposes punishment. And while many (certainly not all) sex offenses involve abominable, almost unspeakable, conduct that deserves severe legal penalties, punishment may never be retroactively imposed or increased. Indeed, the fact that sex offenders are so widely feared and disdained by the general public implicates the core countermajoritarian principle embodied in the Ex Post Facto clause. As the founders rightly perceived, as dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice. Such lawmaking has “been, in all ages, [a] favorite and most formidable instrument of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 84, supra at 444 (Alexander Hamilton). It is, as Justice Chase argued, incompatible with both the words of the Constitution and the underlying first principles of “our free republican governments.” Calder, 3 U.S. at 388–89; accord The Federalist No. 44, supra at 232 (James Madison) (“[E]x post facto laws . . . are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”). The retroactive application of SORA’s 2006 and 2011 amendments to Plaintiffs is unconstitutional, and it must therefore cease.
I was involved with some amicus briefing in this case, so I am a bit biased when saying I think the Sixth Circuit got this one right. But I do not think I am showing any bias when asserting this ruling is a big deal (and could become an even bigger deal if Michigan seeks a further appeal to the full Sixth Circuit or to the US Supreme Court).