SCOTUS reverses 7th Circuit on sex offender registration

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The nation’s highest court reversed the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals today on an Indiana case, holding that that a federal sex offender registry law does not apply to those convicts whose interstate travel happened before the 2006 statute took effect.

In a 6-3 decision that divided the court’s traditional ideological lines, a majority of justices ruled on Thomas Carr v. United States, No. 08-1301, which the 7th Circuit had decided more than a year ago.

The case goes back to 2004, when petitioner Thomas Carr was first convicted of first-degree sexual abuse in Alabama and registered there after his release from custody. When Carr moved to Indiana at the end of that year, he failed to register here. That was discovered in July 2007 – after the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act had gone into effect in 2006 and made it a crime for convicted offenders to travel between states and not register locally. Carr later entered a conditional guilty plea in the Northern District of Indiana and appealed on an ex post facto claim.

In December 2008, the 7th Circuit ruled on the case -- the first of its kind in this Circuit -- and held that Carr’s rights weren’t violated because he had about five months to register and failed to do so. The appellate panel held that the law isn’t unconstitutional and any convicted sex offender must register even if they came to the state prior to the federal law's passage.

But Carr appealed to the SCOTUS and six of the nation’s top justices disagreed, reversing that decision but not addressing the constitutional question presented. Justice Sonya Sotomayor authored the 18-page majority opinion with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer joining her. Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in part and with the final judgment, while Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in a 15-page dissent.

“Having concluded that (18 U.S.C. §2250) does not extend to preenactment travel, we need not consider whether such a construction would present difficulties under the Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, after the court analyzed the legislative intent and wording of the federal act.

But Justice Alito wrote that the majority “misinterprets and hobbles” the federal act provision and the rationale used to reach that conclusion is unsound based on the reading of the provision. Congress didn’t intend for the law to apply only to those traveling after the statute went into effect, but aimed the measure at targeting those “missing offenders” who may not have registered prior to the new law, he wrote.

“When an interpretation of a statutory text leads to a result that makes no sense, a court should at the minimum go back and verify that the textual analysis is correct,” Justice Alito wrote. “Here, not only are the Court’s textual arguments unsound for the reasons explained above, but the indefensible results produced by the Court’s interpretation should have led the Court to double-check its textual analysis.”

Justice Alito would have affirmed the 7th Circuit’s decision.


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