CINCINNATI—A federal appeals court unanimously declared today that portions of the Michigan sex offender registry are unconstitutional because they effectively punish registrants and do not have a corresponding public safety benefit.

In ruling on the case—which was brought in 2012 by the ACLU of Michigan and the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program to challenge the Sex Offender Registry Act (SORA)—the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that restrictions added to the law in 2006 and 2011 cannot be applied to those convicted before the changes went into effect without first determining if they are a danger.

In expanding the law, legislators crafted harsher measures that imposed geographic exclusion zones barring registrants from living, working or spending time with their children in much of the state; imposed extensive reporting requirements; and automatically extended registration to life without due process and without a mechanism for review or appeal for the vast majority of registrants.

The unanimous opinion, written by Judge Alice M. Batchelder, declared: “We conclude that Michigan’s SORA imposes punishment.”

The opinion characterized SORA as a “regime that severely restricts where people can live, work, and ‘loiter,’ that categorizes them into tiers ostensibly corresponding to present dangerousness without any individualized assessment thereof, and that requires time-consuming and cumbersome in-person reporting, all supported by—at best—scant evidence that such restrictions serve the professed purpose of keeping Michigan communities safe.”.”

Miriam Aukerman, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, described the ruling as confirmation that the state’s registry system is a failure.

“Michigan’s sex offender registry is broken, and this ruling affirms that sad fact,” said Aukerman. “Michigan families deserve public-safety measures that actually work—not a failed, ineffectual registration system that stigmatizes people who are not a threat.  It turns out that an ineffective registry and an unconstitutional registry are the same thing. Both squander resources on those who are not dangerous.”

The court opinion underscored how the law creates obstacles to registrants’ efforts to live normally,  relegating registrants “to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins, not only of society, but often, as the record in this case makes painfully evident, from their own families, with whom, due to school zone restrictions, they may not even live.”

Michigan has more than 42,000 registrants, making it the fourth largest registry in the country, with the second highest registration rate per capita of any state. Michigan adds an additional 2,000 registrants are added each year.  Since 2011 the registry has retroactively imposed lifetime registration on the vast majority of registrants regardless of whether they pose any risk to the public.  The plaintiffs in the case, all of whom must register for life and some of whose offenses are decades old, include several individuals convicted as teens of consensual sex with younger teens.

University of Michigan law professor Paul Reingold, director of the Civil Litigation Clinic for the university’s Clinical Law Program, said he hoped the ruling would compel lawmakers to look at measures that are at once legal and effective: “This decision will force Michigan to take a hard look at its registry. The research shows that if registries work at all, they only work if they are focused on people who are a risk.“


Read the federal appeals court's opinion

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