US Supreme Court: Sex Offender Law Can’t Be Applied Retroactively
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to retroactively apply a 2006 law that makes it a crime for sex offenders to cross state lines and knowingly fail to register or update a registration.
After being convicted of first-degree sexual abuse in 2004, Thomas Carr was released on probation and moved from Alabama to Indiana without registering as a sex offender in Indiana. Congress passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) in 2006. Among its provisions, the law bars sex offenders from moving across state lines without registering or updating their registrations.
Carr was charged with violating SORNA in 2007, and he entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal. He claimed the indictment against him should be dismissed, because he traveled to Indiana before the sex offender registration law went into effect.
A federal judge in Indiana refused to dismiss the indictment and sentenced Carr to 30 months in prison.
The 7th Circuit upheld the conviction and sentencing, saying SORNA “does not require that the defendant’s travel postdate the Act.” At oral argument, Carr insisted that the provision criminalizing the failure to register after moving across state lines can only apply after SORNA took effect.
The government argued that the provision is triggered by a sex-offense conviction, followed by interstate travel and a failure to register. In the government’s view, only the failure to register had to occur after SORNA took effect.
“Carr’s interpretation better accords with the statutory text,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the 6-3 majority, reversing the 7th Circuit’s ruling. She said the law specifically states that the provision only applies when a person “is required to register under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.”
Sotomayor rejected the government’s claim that this language was merely a “shorthand way” of identifying those with sex-offense convictions.
She pointed out that, as the government would have it, Congress used 12 words and two implied cross-references to establish that sex offenders were the law’s targeted group. “Such contortions can scarcely be called ‘shorthand,'” Sotomayor wrote.
“Once a person becomes subject to SORNA’s registration requirements, which can occur only after the statute’s effective date, that person can be convicted under [the travel provision] if he thereafter travels and then fails to register.”
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying the majority “misinterprets and hobbles” the travel provision, designed “to punish and deter interstate movement that seriously undermines the enforcement of sex-offender-registration laws.” He said the majority’s conclusion “makes no sense,” as it would allow the conviction of a sex offender who moved and failed to register after SORNA’s enactment, but not someone like Carr, who moved before the law took effect.
“Is there any reason why Congress might have wanted to treat the second case any differently from the first?” he asked. “In both cases, a sex offender’s interstate movement frustrates enforcement of SORNA’s registration requirements.” Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Alito in dissent.