Monday, March 16, 2009

Court Reverses SORNA Convictions

US v. Hatcher: This case was a consolidated appeal of several cases where the defendants were convicted of violating the Sex Offender Registration and Treatment Act ("SORNA") by travelling interstate without properly updating their registrations as sex offenders. The defendants all shared the common traits that: (a) they were convicted in state courts of sex offenses in states that require registration; (b) they served their sentences and were released from prison before SORNA was enacted; (b) the travel which took place and became the basis for the charges against them took place after SORNA was enacted, but prior to July 27, 2006. That date is crucial, because that it when the Attorney General promulgated regulations under 42 USC 16913(d) setting forth how particular groups of sex offenders could comply with SORNA. All the defendants moved to dismiss their indictments on several grounds, all of which were denied.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed,2-1, but narrowly. The court avoided issues of congressional authority, ex post facto, and due process violations by concluding that the defendants weren't covered by the terms of SORNA due to the timing of the events in their cases. Section 16913(d) delegates to the Attorney General the authority to determine how SORNA will apply to those who cannot comply with its requirements going forward, i.e., before their release from prison. The court concluded that a plain reading of that delegation showed that until the Attorney General promulgated regulations, SORNA did not apply to people like the defendants who were already out of prison. There is a circuit split on this issue, with the Eighth and Tenth Circuits finding that the language is ambiguous and interpreting SORNA to apply in such cases. The Fourth joins the Eleventh Circuit in holding otherwise.

Judge Shedd dissented, arguing that the majority read language out of context and that the plain meaning of the statute required compliance from the date of SORNA's enactment.

Congrats to the FPD office in WDVa on the win.

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