Decision Means State Legislature Must Repair Failed Registry

WASHINGTON D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will not hear the State of Michigan’s appeal in a challenge to the state  sex offender registration law, which was dealt a major blow by a federal appeals court in a unanimous decision last year.

Today’s announcement effectively requires the Michigan legislature to replace the existing law, thus creating an opportunity to reform Michigan’s registry, which has been widely criticized as bloated and ineffective. The lawsuit was originally brought by the ACLU of Michigan and the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program in 2012. 

“Courts have repeatedly recognized that Michigan’s sex offender registry is not just unconstitutional, but it’s an abject failure,” said Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney. “Our communities deserve effective public-safety measures that are based in facts and research, not wasteful and counterproductive policies based in fear. We look forward to working with the legislature on a common-sense approach that serves our communities.”

In 2006 and 2011, the state legislature expanded the Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA), originally passed in 1994, creating harsher measures for registrants. The amendments retroactively made most registrants register for life and imposed geographic exclusion zones barring them from living, working, or spending time with their children in large areas of every city and town. Additionally, the legislature added extensive and onerous new in-person reporting requirements that make it a crime for registrants to borrow a car, travel for a week, or get a new email account without immediately notifying the police. The changes were imposed without due process or a mechanism for review or appeal for the vast majority of registrants. 

The plaintiffs in the case must all register for life despite decades old offenses and the fact that they do not pose a risk to their communities. Some plaintiffs were convicted as teens of consensual sex with younger teens, one person never committed a sex offense, and another was never convicted of a crime. All of the plaintiffs are parents or grandparents and as a result of SORA they cannot attend their children or grandchildren’s graduations, sports events or school performances. Because the state posts pictures and extensive personal information about the plaintiffs online – including maps of where they live and work – they have repeatedly lost housing and jobs, and one plaintiff even faced death threats.

By denying the review, the Supreme Court leaves in place a decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which declared that portions of the law are unconstitutional. Noting the lack of evidence that registries actually protect the public, the appeals court held that restrictions added to the law after its original passage cannot be applied retroactively and that the state cannot cast people out as “moral lepers” solely on the basis of a past offense without a determination that they currently present a risk.  The state appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Research proves that registries do nothing to keep us safe – in fact, they makes us less safe, as people with past offenses are stigmatized and pushed to the margins of society, making it harder for them to get jobs or an education, find homes, or take care of their families,” said Paul Reingold of the University of Michigan Law School. “Smart public policy and current research show that this law should be reconsidered from the ground up.”

Michigan has nearly 44,000 registrants, making it the fourth largest sex offender registry in the country, with the third highest registration rate per capita of any state. Michigan adds about 2,000 people to the registry each year, or about 5 a day.

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