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Ohio Supreme Court Says State May Not Reclassify Convicted Sex Offenders

June 3, 2010

Dispatch.com: Ohio Supreme Court Says State May Not Reclassify Convicted Sex Offenders.
Cleveland.com: Ohio Supreme Court strikes down part of sex offender law.
nbc4i.com: Ohio Court: Revert To Old Sex Offender Classes.

Ohio Supreme Court Ruling here (PDF)

The Ohio Supreme Court today struck down a provision of the state’s 2007 sex-offender law, saying it is unconstitutional for the state to reclassify sexual offenders convicted under a previous statute.

The ruling means additional reporting requirements imposed on thousands of sex offenders in Ohio are rescinded, and their requirements return to what they were before the Adam Walsh Act was passed.

Attorney General Richard Cordray’s office couldn’t immediately say how many people would be affected by the ruling, but Jeffrey M. Gamso, a Toledo lawyer who argued the case, estimated it was about 28,000.

Gamso hailed the 5-1 ruling, which held that it was a violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine to allow the legislature and attorney general to take action to change past decisions of trial courts.

He argued that the courts previously had decided which sex offenders were most dangerous and required maximum scrutiny, and that adding additional requirements to others was unfair and a waste of resources.

“This ruling will allow law enforcement to focus its efforts on people who are dangerous,” he said. “The truth is, we’re going back to the restrictions we had before.”

The state and other groups argued it was appropriate for the state to take action against the offenders to protect the public and especially children, and that the new restrictions can be applied retroactively.

The dispute stems from changes in state law after Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006 “to protect the public from sex offenders and offenders against children.”

The Ohio Legislature then passed a bill in June 2007 to align Megen’s Law and the state’s other sex-offender laws with the new federal law. It required the attorney general to identify each offender’s classification under the new law and provide written notice of the new obligations.

Under the old Megan’s Law, sex offenders were divided into three categories: sexually oriented offenders, habitual sex offenders and sexual predators. All sex offenders had to register with their address and other details with their county sheriff, as well as register each year going forward ranging from 10 years to life, depending on their classification.

The 2007 law set three levels of offenders. Those in Tier 1 had to register and each year for 15 years; Tier 2 offenders had to report twice a year for 25 years; and Tier 3 offenders had to register every 90 days for life.

Today’s court ruling involved three adult sex offenders from Huron County who were reclassified as sexual predators under the 2007 law.Christian N. Bodyke, for example, was convicted in October 1999 on one count of breaking and entering and one county of sexual battery. He was classified under the old Megan’s Law as a sexually oriented offender, requiring him to report every year for 10 years, court records say.

In November 2007, Bodyke was reclassified as a Tier 3 offender, meaning he had to register every 90 days for life. He lost an appeal that today’s Ohio Supreme Court ruling reverses.

Justice Robert R. Cupp dissented, saying the reclassification doesn’t change the previous court decisions and thus is not unconstitutional. Justice Terrence O’Donnell concurred with the ruling and dissented in part.

Columbus, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday threw out sections of the state’s new sex offender law after ruling the provisions unconstitutionally altered previous judges’ decisions.

In a 5-1 decision, the high court said Thursday that classification provisions of the sex offender law passed in 2008 violate the separation of powers among branches of government.

The state must now revisit cases of sex offenders who were reclassified after the Legislature passed the law and place them back in categories judges chose under more flexible guidelines in an earlier law. That could subject the sex offenders to less stringent community notification and registration guidelines than the new law envisioned.

The court left the tougher oversight scheme in place for offenders convicted since the new law has been in effect.

Classifications such as “sexually-oriented criminal” or “sexual predator” under the old Megan’s Law were replaced with a tiered classification system under the new Adam Walsh Law. Offenders were moved into the tiers based solely on the offense they had committed, whereas Megan’s Law had allowed judges to hold a hearing and use some discretion in assigning offenders a category.

The case before the Supreme Court involved three men convicted of sex-related crimes in 2007. The three – Christian Bodyke, David Schwab and Gerald Phillips – underwent formal hearings called for under the old law and were assigned categories that required postrelease registration with the sheriff in the county where they live.

In November 2007, they received letters from the attorney general saying the law had been changed and, as of Jan. 1, 2008, they would considered Tier III offenders. The change meant they were subject to more stringent registration and community-notification requirements.

Writing for the majority, Justice Maureen O’Connor said the earlier judges’ decisions in the three cases were binding. Only courts can change the decisions of courts.

“It is well settled that a legislature cannot enact laws that revisit a final judgment,” she wrote. “We have held for over a century that ‘the Legislature cannot annul, reverse, or modify a judgment of a court already rendered.”‘

Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Paul Pfeifer and Terrence O’Donnell agreed with the majority on the separation-of-powers issue. Chief Justice Eric Brown, appointed to replace the late Thomas Moyer, did not participate in the case.

In his dissent, Justice Robert Cupp said lawmakers didn’t interfere with court decisions in the Adam Walsh Act, but simply ordered the attorney general to transfer offenders from one classification to another based on a set of fixed criteria.

“Rather than burden the courts with sifting the hundreds or thousands of sex offenders to which new and different requirements apply, the General Assembly assigned that administrative task to an executive officer, the attorney general,” Cupp wrote.

He said the task “neither requires nor permits the attorney general to open, overturn, or otherwise disturb the final judgments of conviction and sentence of any offender.”

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