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Maryland Cannot Compel Retroactive Sex Offender Registration

Maryland Cannot Compel Retroactive Sex Offender Registration

he Maryland Court of Appeals held in June 2014 that circuit courts have the power to order the removal of sex offenders from the state’s registry, thereby impacting federal databases as well; the decision followed a prior ruling in which the Court found the state’s sex offender registry requirements could not be imposed retroactively.

The decision capped lengthy litigation challenging Maryland’s sex offender registration laws and how they are applied. The state enacted its first registration statute in 1995, which applied only to crimes committed after the law’s October 1, 1995 effective date. However, the Maryland legislature amended the statute in 2001, 2009 and 2010 to allow for registration to be required retroactively. The 2010 amendment also created a tier classification system for sex offenders that outlined registration requirements, with Tier III designated as the most severe, requiring registration every three months for life.

The case in this appeal involved John Doe, a former junior high school teacher who was charged with sex crimes after a former student came forward in 2005 to report abuse that had occurred in the 1980s.

Doe pleaded guilty in 2006 to a single count of child sexual abuse with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. On September 6, 2006 he was sentenced to 10 years with five-and-a-half years suspended, plus three years of probation. One condition of Doe’s probation required him to “register as a child sex offender,” though the trial court later agreed to strike that condition after Doe challenged it.

Doe was released from prison in December 2008. Then, on October 1, 2009, he was ordered by his probation officer, under threat of arrest and re-incarceration, to register as a sex offender. He complied, registering that same month. A year later, under the 2010 amendment to Maryland’s registration law, Doe was classified as a Tier III sex offender, which required him to re-register every 90 days for life.

Doe filed a motion seeking a declaration that he was not required to register, but the trial court denied his “request for declaratory relief and ordered that Petitioner ‘shall not be removed from the sex offender registry.’”

That order was upheld by the Court of Special Appeals in March 2012, but the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, reversed on March 4, 2013, holding that “[t]he application of the statute has essentially the same effect upon Petitioner’s life as placing him on probation and imposing the punishment of shaming for life.” Thus, the Court concluded, it was “tantamount to imposing an additional sanction for Petitioner’s crime,” and requiring Doe to register violated the ex post facto prohibition of Article 17 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights because he had been convicted and sentenced prior to the passage of the amended registration law. See: Doe v. Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services, 430 Md. 535, 62 A.3d 123 (Md. 2013).

On remand, the circuit court ordered the state to “[R]emove any and all information regarding Doe from the Maryland Sex Offender Registry website; [R]emove or cause to be removed any and all information regarding Doe’s sex offender registration from state and local law enforcement databases within the state of Maryland; [and] [R]emove Doe’s sex offender registration from all federal databases including the [FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC)].”

The state appealed, arguing that Doe was “not entitled to the relief granted” due to his federal registration requirements under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).

On June 30, 2014, in a ruling that consolidated two cases, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that circuit courts “have the authority to compel the State to remove all of its records relating to Doe’s registration as a sex offender, and to notify federal agencies of his removal from the Maryland registry.”

The Court went on to clarify that circuit courts do not have the direct authority to order the removal of offenders from federal databases. The Court of Appeals noted that “It is true that the ... databases are all managed by federal agencies; however, the information contained in each is provided by the State.” Thus, “in the context of sex offender registration databases, the only relevant database is the Maryland registry.”

As the circuit court had incorrectly ordered the state to “remove information from ‘federal databases,’” its order had to be revised to only require the state to remove Doe from Maryland’s sex offender registry. See: Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services v. Doe, 439 Md. 201, 94 A.3d 791 (Md. 2014).


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Related legal case

Doe v. Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services