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Supreme Court Upholds State Laws Imposing Stiffer Penalties on Repeat Offenders and Requiring Sex Offenders to Register With State and Local Authorities

By Larry Jones
March 17, 2003


In separate decisions on the so called "Megan's Law," the Supreme Court on March 5 upheld laws in Alaska and Connecticut that require sex offenders to register with state and local law enforcement authorities upon entering the state. The Court ruled that the so called "Megan's Law" applies retroactively and does not violate the Due Process Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment. Megan Kanka was a 7-year old New Jersey girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1994 by a neighbor who, unknown to the victim's family, had prior convictions for sex offenses against children. This crime was the impetus behind every state, the District of Columbia and the federal government enacting some variation of Megan's law by 1996.

In another case, the Supreme Court upheld California's so called "Three Strikes Law." In this case the Court ruled that a 25-year prison term is not cruel and unusual punishment for a person convicted of grand theft, who had four prior felony convictions.

Sex Offender Registration and Notification Upheld

In Alaska, any sex offender or child kidnaper incarcerated in the state is required under the Sex Offender Registration Act to register with the state department of corrections within 30 days before his release. He must provide his name, address and other pertinent information; and if he is not incarcerated, he must register with local law enforcement authorities within one working day of his conviction or of entering the state. The information on sex offenders is then forwarded to the state department of public safety, which maintains a central registry of sex offenders. Much of the information, including the sex offender's name, aliases, address, photograph, physical description, place of employment and other data is placed on the Internet. Both the Act's registration and notification requirements are applied retroactively.

The Alaska case, Smith v. Doe, involved two persons who were convicted of sexually abusing a minor between the ages of nine and eleven and a fourteen-year old girl. Both served time and were released from prison in 1990 and completed rehabilitative programs for sex offenders. Although convicted before the passage of the Act, the respondents were covered and therefore required to register and submit quarterly verifications and notify state and local authorities of any changes. Both respondents along with one of the respondent's wife brought action in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska claiming that the state's sex registration law amounted to retroactive punishment forbidden by the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The central issue was whether the state law established a nonpunitive, civil regulatory scheme or a punishment that could be applied retroactively.

The District Court ruled that the intent of the state's Act was to establish a nonpunitive regulatory scheme. While the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the state legislature had intended the Act to be a nonpunitive, civil regulatory scheme, it held that the effects of the Act were punitive and as a result, violated the Ex Post Facto Clause. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that "...nothing on the face of the statute suggests that the legislature sought to create anything other than a civil scheme designed to protect the public from harm." Further, the Supreme Court held "Because the Alaska Sex Offender Registration Act is nonpunitive, its retroactive application does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause."

In Connecticut, a convicted sex offender filed an action against the state for compiling a sex offender registry and posting it on the Internet. He filed a class action law suit, Connecticut Department of Public Works v. Doe, on behalf of himself and similarly situated sex offenders claiming that the state's Megan Law violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He alleged that he was not a dangerous sex offender and that Connecticut's law "deprives him of a liberty interest — his reputation combined with the alteration of his status under the law — without notice or a meaningful opportunity to be heard."

The District Court agreed and permanently enjoined the law's public disclosure provisions. The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court's decision and ruled that the Due Process Clause entitles a class of individuals to a hearing "to determine whether or not they are particularly likely to be currently dangerous before being labeled as such by their inclusion in a publicly disseminated registry." The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the ruling in favor of the Connecticut. It held that due process does not entitle the respondent to a hearing to establish a fact that is not material under the state's law. In addition, it ruled "...the fact that respondent seeks to prove that he is not currently dangerous — is of no consequence under Connecticut's Megan's Law." Further, the Supreme Court explained "In short, even if respondent could prove that he is not likely to be currently dangerous, Connecticut has decided that the registry information of all sex offenders — currently dangerous or not — must be publicly disclosed.

3-Strikes Law — Stiffer Penalties for Repeat Offenders Upheld

Under California's three strikes law, a person convicted of a felony and who has previously been convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies must serve an indeterminate life imprisonment term. In such a case, a convicted person would become eligible for parole on a date calculated by the state by reference to a minimum term.

On March 12, 2000 Gary Ewing, while on parole from a nine-year prison term, was apprehended after stealing three golf clubs valued at $300 a piece from a Los Angeles pro shop. During his trial in the state's trial court, not only was Ewing found guilty of grand theft for stealing the golf clubs but the prosecutor presented evidence that Ewing had been convicted previously of four serious felonies — three burglaries and a robbery in Long Beach. With two or more felony convictions, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison under the state's three strikes law. On appeal to the state appeals court, Ewing claimed that his sentence was grossly disproportionate to his crime under the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The state appeals court affirmed the trial court's decision and the state supreme court denied Ewing's petition for review.

After agreeing to hear the case, Ewing v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled "that Ewing's sentence is not grossly disproportionate and therefore does not violate the Eight Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments." In explaining its decision, the Supreme Court said the "Eight Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence but forbids only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime." The Court further pointed out that "Ewing sentence is justified by the state's public safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons, and amply supported by his own long, serious criminal record."