A Major Constitutional Decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

In 2011 the General Assembly enacted, consistent with federal mandate, Pennsylvania’s latest version of Megan’s Law.  Entitled SORNA or the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, the law became effective on December 12, 2012.

SORNA, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9799.10 to 9799.41, classifies offenders and their offenses into three tiers, 42 Pa.C.S. §9799.14. Those convicted of Tier I offenses are subject to registration for a period of 15 years and are required to verify their registration information and be photographed, in person at an approved registration site, annually, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9799.15(a)(1), (e)(1). Those convicted of Tier II offenses are subject to registration for a period of 25 years and are required to verify their registration information and be photographed, in person at an approved registration site, semi-annually, § 9799.15(a)(2), (e)(2).  This registration scheme greatly extended the registration responsibilities for defendants whose criminal acts occurred prior to December 2012.

I have written several blogs on this issue: SORNA’s retroactive registration requirement for those previously convicted of crimes enumerated within the law purview.  The law specifically states that any individual under supervision (probation, parole, or prison – but not registration supervision) on December 12, 2012 was subject to reclassification of their registration scheme.  The reclassification effectively altered every supervised defendant’s SORNA’s registration requirements from 10 years to 15, 25 or life and changed the annual to quarterly registrations.

My blogs focused on the Pennsylvania State Police’s effort to reclassify offenders who were not under supervision, but were still registering consistent with their guilty plea or sentencing scheme.  In these cases the defendants served their sentence, had complied with their guilty plea agreement, but the State Police sought to reclassify and extent their registration requirements.  The Supreme and Superior court decisions in these cases (Nase, Haisworth and Martinez) dealt with these cases, declaring the State Police’s unilateral reclassification of non-supervised defendant a breach of the guilty plea agreement.

Various state court judges not willing to terminate a SORNA registration requirement found every way possible to deny these defendants post-conviction non-PCRA relief.

On July 19, 2017 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued the decision in Commonwealth v. Muniz, 2017 Pa Lexis 1682.  The facts are as follows: On February 7, 2007, after a bench trial in Cumberland County, appellant was convicted of two counts of indecent assault arising out of an incident where he touched the breasts of his girlfriend’s twelve-year old daughter.  Sentencing was scheduled for May 8, 2007, at which time appellant would have been ordered to register as a sex offender with the Pennsylvania State Police for a period of ten years pursuant to then-effective Megan’s Law III. See 42 Pa.C.S. §9795.1 (expired).  However, appellant failed to appear for his sentencing hearing and absconded until he was apprehended on unrelated charges in Rhode Island in September 2014. N.T., 10/14/14 at 2. During his absence, the General Assembly [*3] had replaced Megan’s Law III with SORNA. Under SORNA, persons convicted of indecent assault of a person less than thirteen years of age, 18 Pa.C.S. §3126(a)(7), are categorized as Tier III offenders and are required to register as sex offenders for the remainder of their lives.

Appellant Muniz was sentenced to four to fourteen months’ imprisonment and ordered to comply with lifetime registration requirements under SORNA. Appellant filed a post-sentence motion seeking application of the ten-year registration period under Megan’s Law III, which was the law in place at the time of his offense and conviction, instead of lifetime registration under SORNA. The trial court denied Muniz’ motion and he appealed to the Superior Court, claiming retroactive application of SORNA violates the ex post facto clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, and the reputation clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Importantly, the court found that Muniz’ seven year absence from the Commonwealth is of no moment. SORNA applies retroactively to any individual serving a sentence for a sexual offense or any individual who had not completed their registration period under prior registration statutes as of SORNA’s effective date of December 20, 2012. 42 Pa.C.S. §9799.13. Had Muniz been sentenced in 2007 and subject to registration under Megan’s Law III, he would not have completed his ten-year registration period when SORNA became effective and thus his ten-year registration period would have been converted to a term of lifetime registration.  This foot note number 3 applies to every case for which pre-December 2012 defendants may now seek to contest their post-sentencing reclassification!

Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal raising two questions regarding SORNA’s “sexual offenses and tier system” provisions set forth at 42 Pa.C.S. §9799.14:
1) Does applying [42 Pa.C.S. § 9799.14]  retroactively violate the Federal Constitution?
2) Does applying [42 Pa.C.S. § 9799.14] retroactively violate the Pennsylvania
Constitution?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said YES to both questions:   The retroactive application of SORNA’s new harsh, punitive shaming registration scheme to defendants whose sex related crimes were committed prior to December 12, 2012 is unconstitutional.   The Court rules that SORNA increases punishment for conduct which occurred before its enactment and such retroactive application violates both federal and state constitutional bans on ex post facto laws; in doing so, the court finds that the Pennsylvania Constitution provides greater protection than the United States Constitution, that SORNA is therefore unconstitutional as applied to someone like Muniz whose conviction predated its enactment. The Pennsylvania State Police can not now lawfully retroactive apply SORNA and reclassify defendants (under supervision or not) for criminal conduct occurring prior to December 2012.  This is huge.

Call me to discuss your case.

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One Response to A Major Constitutional Decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

  1. Jim says:

    Thank you for the cogent explanation.
    It has been a few weeks and yet nothing from the state police.

    I have read that the DA in the Muniz case is going to appeal to SCOTUS-
    Does not the fact that the Pa.Supreme court decision finding that Sorna violates the Pa. constitution prohibit any appeal to SCOTUS?

    What is the hold up? It took the state police about five minutes to violate my constitutional rights in December 2012,
    adding me to their list when I was halfway through a three year probation sentence for a guilty plea to invasion of privacy involving a married adult women I had an affair with…
    I was under the impression that this decision is final?

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