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Washington State Sheriff’s Classification of Sex Offender Violates Separation of Powers

The State of Washington Division II Court of Appeals has held that the legislature violated the separation of powers by allowing the sheriff’s office to classify sex offenders to levels of supervision without providing guidance.

Before the Court was the appeal of Domingo Torres Ramos, Jr., who was challenging his conviction of failure to report to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office as a registered sex offender. In 1993, Ramon was convicted of two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. At the time he completed his 42-month prison sentence in 1995, Washington did not require persons convicted of that crime to register as sex offenders.

When the legislature added sexual exploitation of a minor to the list of crimes requiring registration, Ramos registered in 2001. The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office classified him as a level II offender. Under that Office’s procedures, a level I offender poses a relatively low risk of recidivism, level II offenders pose an intermediate risk and level III offenders pose a high risk.

Effective September 1, 2006, all level II or III offenders have been required to report to the county sheriff in person every 90 days. When Ramos failed to report on January 8, 2007, he was arrested and charged with violation of sex offender registration. After a bench trial, he was found guilty.

To make that finding, the trial court considered Ramos’s classification as a level II sex offender an element of the crime. Under current statutes, a local law enforcement agency determines the level of risk of an offender already released into the community, which is based on “classifications made by the department of corrections, the department of social and health services, and the indeterminate sentence review board.” Those entities never assessed Ramos, making Thurston County’s Sheriff solely responsible for the classification.

In finding this violates the separation of powers, the Appellate Court held the legislature “inadequately defined the element of the crime at question (risk of reoffense) and did not provide standards to assist law enforcement agencies in establishing measurement procedures of the risk of reoffense. As a result, the legislature has not made a sufficient administrative delegation in this case.”

Aside from the referral to risk level classifications, RCW 4.24.550(6) fails to provide any standards or methodology to make that determination. Rather than provide guidance to local law enforcement, the legislature delegated full responsibility for defining offenders’ risk levels, an element of a felony, to those law enforcement agencies. The Court held this violates the separation of powers, requiring Ramos’s conviction to be dismissed. See: State of Washington v. Ramos, 149 Wash.App. 266, 202 P.3d 383 (Wa. App. 2009).

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Related legal case

State of Washington v. Ramos