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Registry law doesn't apply to all sex offenders, Supreme Court rules

A sex offender who moved from Alabama to Indiana in 2004 does not have to register with authorities because his move predates the registry law Congress enacted in 2006, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

By Staff writer / June 1, 2010

A registry law doesn't apply to interstate travel by a sex offender, Supreme Court rules.

Evan Vucci/AP/File

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A national sex offender registry law does not apply to interstate travel by a sex offender that took place before Congress passed the registry statute in 2006, the US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

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In a 6-to-3 decision, the high court rejected the Obama administration’s expansive reading of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Instead, the majority justices embraced a narrower view of the law, while overturning a convicted sex offender’s 30-month prison sentence for traveling to another state and failing to register.

The decision triggered a heated dissent by three justices who warned that the ruling will impair the ability of law enforcement officials to locate and register some 100,000 convicted sex offenders who have eluded authorities.

“Under the court’s interpretation, the many sex offenders who had managed to avoid pre-existing registration regimes, mainly by moving from one state to another before SORNA’s enactment, are placed beyond the reach of the federal criminal laws,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote.

Lawyers for convicted sex offender Thomas Carr had claimed the government’s retroactive enforcement of SORNA violated the Constitution’s ban on ex post facto laws. But the high court did not reach that constitutional question.

No retroactive enforcement, court rules

Instead, the majority justices found that the statute, as written by Congress, did not authorize retroactive enforcement.

“Taking account of SORNA’s overall structure, we have little reason to doubt that Congress intended [the statute] to do exactly what it says: to subject to federal prosecution sex offenders who elude SORNA’s registration requirements by traveling in interstate commerce,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the majority opinion.

Justice Sotomayor said Congress chose to use the present-tense word “travels” in the statute, rather than the past-tense word “traveled.” If Congress wanted the law to apply to travel undertaken before the law’s passage, it would have used the past tense, she said.

Mr. Carr, a convicted sex offender, had argued that the law was unconstitutional because it sought to punish earlier actions committed prior to passage of the statute. Under SORNA, a defendant may face up to 10 years in prison if he or she is a convicted sex offender who travels from one state to another and who knowingly fails to register with authorities.

Case history of Thomas Carr

Carr was arrested in February 2003 in Alabama for touching a 14-year-old girl over her clothes. He pled guilty in May 2004 and was sentenced to two years in prison with credit for time already served.

Upon his release, Carr registered in Alabama as a sex offender. Five months later, in December 2004, he moved to Indiana but did not register with authorities there. He was arrested in 2007 and charged with violating SORNA.

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