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Washington Sex Offender's Conviction for Failure to Report Reversed

The en banc Washington State Supreme Court has reversed a defendant's conviction for failure to report as a sex offender, finding that the reporting statute was ambiguous and the evidence presented was insufficient to support the conviction.

Prior to 2010, Washington law required all Level II or III sex offenders to report to the county sheriff every 90 days pursuant to RCW 9A.44.130(7). Failure to report was a felony offense.

Michael Edward Caton registered as a sex offender with the Lewis County Sheriff's Office on May 19, 2009. He was notified of the 90-day reporting requirement and received a June 16, 2009 reporting date.

On June 9, 2009, Caton was arrested for a driving offense. After he was released from jail the following day, Caton reported to the sheriff's office because he believed "that as a registered sex offender he was required to report to the sheriff after his release from confinement for any offense." However, his June 16, 2009 reporting date remained unchanged.

When Caton reported on June 17, 2009 instead of June 16, he was charged with failing to report. The superior court found him guilty of violating RCW 9A.44.130(7) for "knowingly and unlawfully ... failing to report in person to the Lewis County Sheriff's office on the required day for the 90 day reporting requirement," and imposed a 50-month prison sentence. The appellate court affirmed the conviction.

Caton petitioned for review, and the Washington state Supreme Court held that whether he had violated the sex offender reporting requirement turned upon the proper interpretation of RCW 9A.44.130(7).

"The gravamen of the offense is failure to report every 90 days, not failure to report on a specific date," the Court explained. "To the extent the statute can be read as making it an offense to not report on the sheriff's specified date, even if the offender reports within the 90-day period, it is ambiguous." The Supreme Court also concluded that "it is further ambiguous as to the event triggering the 90-day reporting period."

Given that Caton had reported on June 10 and June 17, 2009, and both of those dates were well within 90 days of his initial May 19, 2009 registration, the Court held the state had failed to prove that he violated RCW 9A.44.130(7). See: State of Washington v. Caton, 174 Wash.2d 239, 273 P.3d 980 (Wash. 2012) (en banc).

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Related legal case

State of Washington v. Caton