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New York Sex Offenders’ Settlement Agreement Superseded by New Registration Law

New York Sex Offenders’ Settlement Agreement Superseded by New Registration Law

The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals dealt a blow to sex offenders in New York state when it ruled that despite an earlier suit and settlement agreement that required sex offender registration procedures to be consistent with earlier laws, new and harsher registration laws enacted by the state superseded the offenders’ hard-won settlement.

New York first enacted Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) laws in 1996. The least restricted SORA class registrants could discharge their “scarlet letter” burden after ten years; the mid-level class also had to wait 10 years but were subject to enhanced community notification, while the most restricted class (predators) had to register for life. A group of sex offenders sued to challenge the 1996 law on Ex Post Facto grounds, but lost. See: Doe v. Pataki, 120 F.3d 1263 (2nd Cir. 1997).

In March 2002 the SORA classification process was procedurally changed, which created three new categories that required lifetime registration. Dissatisfied, the offenders sued again, this time on due process grounds, and entered into a Stipulation Agreement with the state in June 2004. The Agreement provided for proper hearing processes and preserved the length of an offender’s registration period at the pre-2002 levels if his or her offenses predated the classification changes.

New York legislators tightened the noose again in January 2006, extending sex offender registration periods to 20 years, 30 years (or life) and life, respectively, for the three classes of sex offenders. Further, in June 2006 state lawmakers broadened the public notification process for all registrants. But the final blow was that while New York made its registration conditions more onerous, it reneged on its earlier 2004 Agreement. That is, the state in effect voided its Agreement by amending its laws.

The U.S. District Court (S.D.N.Y.) initially ruled for the plaintiff prisoners, holding that they were contractually entitled to the benefits they had bargained for in good faith. But the Second Circuit, on an appeal by the state, disagreed. The appellate court looked at the language of the Agreement and found that it only described the earlier statutory registration limitation periods. It did not find, as it determined it must, any language wherein the state gave up its right to later change its laws. This turned on the maxim that federal courts sit only to rule on questions of federal statutes or the U.S. Constitution; they cannot, as requested by the plaintiffs in this case, rule on the state’s waiver of its sovereignty to enact new laws from time to time unless the state unmistakably surrendered that right in the Agreement.

Dubbing this the “unmistakably” doctrine (derived from U.S. Supreme Court precedent), the Second Circuit found that absent such language the Agreement only stood for the “recitation of existing statutory provisions” and was therefore insufficient to empower a federal court to, in effect, abate the state’s sovereignty in regard to passing new laws.

Accordingly, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s injunction, leaving all New York State sex offender registrants at the peril of past statutory amendments and any other Draconian changes that tough-on-crime legislators might choose to enact in the future. See: Doe v. Pataki, 481 F.3d 69 (2nd Cir. 2007).

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