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November 2, 2017

Sex offender registration laws meet Apprendi procedural rights in new Pennsylvania ruling

A helpful reader altered me to an interesting new ruling from appellate court in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Commonwealth v. Butler, NO. J-A21024-17 (Pa. Supp. Ct. App. Oct. 31, 2017) (available here). Folks concerned about the reach of sex offender registration laws and fans of the Supreme Court's Apprendi line of jurisprudence will both want to check out this opinion.  Here is how it starts and a key part of the ruling:

Appellant, Joseph Dean Butler, appeals from the judgment of sentence entered on August 4, 2016, as made final by the denial of his post-sentence motion on August 10, 2016.  In this case, we are constrained by our Supreme Court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Muniz, 164 A.3d 1189 (Pa. 2017), to hold that 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9799.24(e)(3), a portion of the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act’s (“SORNA’s”) framework for designating a convicted defendant a Sexually Violent Predator (“SVP”), violates the federal and state constitutions. As such, we are compelled to reverse the trial court’s July 25, 2016 order finding that Appellant is an SVP and we remand for the sole purpose of having the trial court issue the appropriate notice under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9799.23 as to Appellant’s registration requirements....

Apprendi and Alleyne apply to all types of punishment, not just imprisonment.  See S. Union Co. v. United States, 567 U.S. 343, 346-360 (2012).  Thus, as our Supreme Court has stated, if registration requirements are punishment, then the facts leading to registration requirements need to be found by the fact-finder chosen by the defendant, be it a judge or a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt.  See Commonwealth v. Lee, 935 A.2d 865, 880 (Pa. 2007)....

We recognize that our Supreme Court did not consider the ramifications of its decision in Muniz with respect to individuals designated as SVPs for crimes committed after SORNA’s effective date.  Nonetheless, our Supreme Court’s holding that registration requirements under SORNA constitute a form of criminal punishment is dispositive of the issue presented in this case.  In other words, since our Supreme Court has held that SORNA registration requirements are punitive or a criminal penalty to which individuals are exposed, then under Apprendi and Alleyne, a factual finding, such as whether a defendant has a “mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes [him or her] likely to engage in predatory sexually violent offenses[,]” 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9799.12, that increases the length of registration must be found beyond a reasonable doubt by the chosen fact-finder.  Section 9799.24(e)(3) identifies the trial court as the finder of fact in all instances and specifies clear and convincing evidence as the burden of proof required to designate a convicted defendant as an SVP.  Such a statutory scheme in the criminal context cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.  Accordingly, we are constrained to hold that section 9799.24(e)(3) is unconstitutional and Appellant’s judgment of sentence, to the extent it required him to register as an SVP for life, was illegal.

As a fan of Apprendi rights who has long been concerned that courts sometimes work too hard to limit their logical reach, I am pleased to see this state court come to a seemingly sound conclusion in a controversial setting.  In addition, I get a kick out of imagining, if now asked what case applied Apprendi rights to the SORNA setting, saying "the Butler did it."

November 2, 2017 at 11:52 PM | Permalink

Comments

Yeah, they came to a sound conclusion, but not before throwing a rhetorical temper tantrum on their way there.

Posted by: Guy | Nov 3, 2017 8:56:42 AM

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