COLUMBUS, Oh.—The Ohio Supreme Court, in a ruling published today, has declared that imposing "enhanced" sex offender registration and community notification requirements on previously-convicted sex offenders, as required by the Ohio Adam Walsh Act (AWA) which was contained in 2007's Senate Bill (SB) 10 is a violation of the Ohio Constitution.
"When the General Assembly adopted the AWA by enacting 2007 S.B. 10," stated a Ohio Supreme Court press release, "it included statutory language requiring that, regardless of the date on which a defendant’s crime was committed, state courts sentencing sex offenders on or after July 1, 2007 must apply a new three-tiered AWA offender classification scheme and must include in the defendant’s sentence registration and community notification requirements set forth in the AWA that are more severe than similar provisions in the prior, Megan’s Law, version of the statute."
The decision was based on Article II, Sec. 28 of the Ohio Constitution, which states in part, "The general assembly shall have no power to pass retroactive laws." Similar wording can be found in the U.S. Constitution as well, where one clause in Article I, Sec. 9 reads, "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto ["after the fact"] Law shall be passed."
The case at issue was State v. George Williams, where the defendant had been convicted for engaging in sexual conduct with a minor—conduct which took place prior to July, 2007, although Williams was convicted on the charges in December, 2007, after SB 10 had been passed.
"Prior to his sentencing hearing," the Supreme Court's press release stated, "Williams entered a motion asking the trial court to sentence him under the Megan’s Law sex offender classification scheme that was in effect on the date of his offense, rather than under the AWA classification scheme. The trial court overruled Williams’ motion. Pursuant to the AWA he was classified as a Tier II offender, which required him to register with the sheriff in his county of residence, and in any other county in which he worked or attended school, every 180 days for the next 25 years." Under Megan's Law, his registration and reporting requirements would have been limited to 10 years.
Williams appealed that ruling under the ex post facto/retroactivity clauses of both the Ohio and U.S. Constitutions, as well as arguing violation of the U.S. Constitution's due process clauses and its ban on double jeopardy.
Another portion of the AWA, which would have allowed the Ohio Attorney General to reclassify sex offenders without the necessity of judicial approval, was overturned by the same court just over one year ago.
The Ohio Supreme Court's 5-2 decision, authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, overturning the AWA was largely based on the fact that while several state decisions had held that the registration requirements of Megan's Law were considered remedial rather than punitive in nature, "Following the enactment of SB 10, all doubt has been removed: R.C. Chapter 2950 [the AWA] is punitive," Justice Pfeifer stated in the majority opinion. "The statutory scheme has changed dramatically since this court described (in [State v.] Cook) the registration process imposed on sex offenders as an inconvenience 'comparable to renewing a driver’s license.' ... And it has changed markedly since this court concluded in [State v.] Ferguson that R.C. Chapter 2950 was remedial...
"Based on these significant changes to the statutory scheme governing sex offenders, we are no longer convinced that R.C. Chapter 2950 is remedial, even though some elements of it remain remedial...," the high court concluded. "We conclude that SB 10, as applied to Williams and any other sex offender who committed an offense prior to the enactment of SB 10, violates Section 28, Article II of the Ohio Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from enacting retroactive laws."
One attorney who's taking careful note of the decision is First Amendment advocate Jennifer Kinsley, of Sirkin, Kinsley and Nazzarene.
"My client is, I'm sure, going to be completely overjoyed, as am I,"she stated, referring to the person she had identified earlier as "M.S."
"I have a pending appeal in the Sixth Circuit, that's exactly this exact issue," she continued. "I won in the U.S. District Court in my individual case; I just represent one person, and the district court had ruled that as applied to him, Senate Bill 10 violated the ex post facto clause by imposing retroactive punishment on him, so the exact same issue that the Ohio Supreme Court just ruled on. The government appealed my decision to the Sixth Circuit, and it's been held in abeyance pending this and two other Ohio Supreme Court decisions. What I think is going to happen is, I have a motion pending to dismiss the Sixth Circuit appeal as moot, because my client would be entitled to relief under not only the district court decision but also under the Ohio Supreme Court's decision, so he's going to win either way."
"The Ohio Supreme Court decision in Williams does a really good job of explaining how in light of these internet websites that we now have, and community notification and criminal penalties attaching and more periodic registration in person with a sheriff there, all of these measures are looking more and more and more like punishment and less and less and less like a driver's license," she analyzed, "and as that shift has happened, it's become more like criminal punishment, and really, the Ohio Supreme Court is the first top court in a state to characterize it that way."
Kinsley said that through her discovery motions in the case, it had been revealed that hundreds of people in Ohio will be affected by today's decision, and will now be able to get on with their lives without the stigma of appearing on sex offender websites.