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New York Sex Offenders’ Settlement Agreement Superseded By New Registration Law

by John E. Dannenberg

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offender registration procedures consistent with earlier laws, new and harsher registration laws enacted by New York superseded the offenders’ hard-won agreement.

New York State first enacted the Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) laws in 1996. The least restricted SORA class registrant could discharge his Scarlet Letter burden after 10 years; the middle class waited 13 years. [The worst 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. Doe v. Pataki, 120 F.3d 1263 (2fld Cir. 1997). In March 2002, the classification process was procedurally improved, under pressure of litigation.
Dissatisfied, the offenders sued again, but on due process grounds, and won a Stipulation Agreement in June 2004. This Agreement provided for proper hearing processes, but also preserved an offender’s registration exposure period at the pre-2002 levels if their offenses predated that statutory change.

New York legislators tightened the noose again in January 2006, extending registration periods to 20 years, 30 years (or life) and life, respectively, for all past offenders. And in June 2006, the legislature 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 Agreement. That is, the state in effect voided its Agreement by amending its laws.

The U.S. District Court (S.D. N.Y.) 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, upon the state’s appeal, disagreed. The Circuit court looked at the language of the Agreement, and found therein language only describing the earlier statutory 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 concern turns on the maxim that federal courts sit only to rule on questions of federal statutes or the U.S. Constitution. They cannot, as requested here, rule on the state’s apparent giving up 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 court 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.

Accordingly, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s injunction, leaving all past New York State sex offender registrants at the peril of earlier statutory amendments and any other Draconian changes vote-hungry legislators might choose to enact in the future. See: Doe v. Pataki, 481 F.3d 29 (2nd Cir.2007).

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Related legal case

Doe v. Pataki