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.
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.
Carr’s lawyer fought the charge, arguing that his client moved to Indiana in December 2004, well before SORNA was passed by Congress and long before the attorney general established a regulation retroactively applying the new registration law to interstate travel by sex offenders.
A federal judge ruled that retroactive enforcement of the law did not violate the Constitution. Carr pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. But he reserved his right to appeal the ex post facto issue.
On appeal, a panel of the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Carr’s conviction. The appeals court said his conviction should stand because he had been given a sufficient grace period (five months) between the enactment of the attorney general’s regulations and his failure to register as a sex offender.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, remanding the case back to the lower courts to apply the new ruling.
“Reading [the statute] to reach only postenactment travel does not contravene SORNA’s underlying purposes, let alone result in an absurdity that would compel us to disregard the statutory text,” Sotomayor wrote.
She said since the case could be resolved through statutory interpretation, the high court need not consider whether the law violated the Constitution’s ex post facto clause.
The minority report
“As I read this language, neither the use of the present tense in paragraph (2) (B) nor the sequence in which the elements are listed provides any basis for limiting the provision to those sex offenders who move from one state to another after SORNA’s enactment,” Alito wrote.
“SORNA was a response to a dangerous gap in the then-existing sex-offender-registration laws,” Alito said. “In the years prior to SORNA’s enactment, the nation had been shocked by cases in which children had been raped and murdered by persons who, unbeknownst to their neighbors or the police, were convicted sex offenders.”
Alito said that the court’s analysis of the text of the statute was “unsound” and that the court’s conclusions “make no sense.”