Pa. Supreme Court
file (James Robinson/PennLive)
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on August 16, 2016 at 4:31 PM, updated August 17, 2016 at 10:24 AM
A ruling issued by a sharply-divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court could greatly alter the registration requirements imposed on some types of convicted sex offenders.
The decision by the court’s majority states that offenders who commit some kinds of sex crimes, such as possessing child pornography, cannot be made to register with state police for life unless they commit at least one more sex crime after their initial convictions. In other words, they have to become recidivists to qualify for the lifetime registration.
State police have been requiring such first-time offenders to register for life if they have multiple sex crime convictions stemming from just one criminal incident.
Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said Tuesday that the high court’s decision likely will have an impact on plea negotiations in certain sex-crime cases. The difference in registration requirements – some offenses carry registration terms as low as 15 years – can prompt a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser sex crime to avoid the lifetime registration.
“The biggest impact will be with plea negotiations,” Marsico said. “These registration requirements are often at issue.”
The dispute before the Supreme Court hinged on the interpretation of the wording of a state law that requires lifetime registration for some sex offenders who receive “two or more convictions.”
A Supreme Court majority consisting of Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justices Kevin M. Dougherty, Max Baer and Christine Donohue concluded the wording means sex offenders in some cases must be convicted of such crimes for two separate incidents to trigger the lifetime registration mandate.
Justices Debra McClosky Todd and David N. Wecht dissented.
The majority decision means sex offenders convicted of “Tier 1” crimes including kidnapping of minors, child luring, institutional sexual assault, indecent assault, prostitution involving minors, possessing child porn and unlawful contact with a minor won’t be required to register for life on their first offense, no matter how many charges their first convictions entail. They will still have to register with police for 15 years.
The Supreme Court majority opinion written by Dougherty dealt with the case of a 21-year-old Montgomery County man who was convicted of persuading his 16-year-old girlfriend to take and send sexually explicit photos of herself. He was arrested in 2000 when her father found the pics. After pleading guilty to seven child porn counts, he was sentenced to 5 to 23 months in county prison, plus 5 years of probation.
At the time of his plea and sentencing, the man, who is identified in the court opinion as A.S., along with the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney believed he would be subject to a 10-year registration, Dougherty noted. State police told him he had to register for life because of his multiple convictions in that single case.
The state’s highest court took on the A.S. case when state police appealed a Commonwealth Court ruling that ordered his removal from the lifetime registrant list. The Supreme Court immediately applied the majority decision to another case involving Thomas Lutz-Morrison, a Lancaster County man who was told by state police to register for life for his multiple convictions in a single child porn case. The justices ruled that Lutz-Morrison is subject only to a 15-year sex offender registration.
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed agreed with Marsico that the Supreme Court ruling could affect some plea talks. Still, he said it won’t greatly alter the course of sex crime prosecutions.
“As prosecutors, we’ll be able to handle this,” Freed said. The question is whether there will be moves in the Legislature to alter the law in light of the high court’s decision.
Defense attorney Brian Perry praised the Supreme Court ruling for giving some offenders a chance to reform.
“The court’s decision allows individuals to rehabilitate themselves and not have to deal with (registration) for the rest of their lives,” Perry said. “From the first-time defendant’s perspective, it certainly makes sense.