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Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law Struck Down, Some Prisoners Released

Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law Struck Down, Some Prisoners Released

by David M. Reutter

In December 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s version of Megan’s Law, holding the legislature had violated the “single subject” rule of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The Court’s ruling resulted from an appeal filed by James H. Neiman, Jr., who was convicted in 2007 of various sexual offenses. He was found by the trial court to be a sexually violent predator, which required him to register as a sex offender and comply with reporting requirements pursuant to Megan’s Law upon release from his 13½-to-27 year sentence.

Neiman challenged Act 152 of 2004, arguing it violated the single subject rule; Act 152 had amended Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law. The Act began as an eight-page bill that sought to amend sections governing “deficiency judgment procedures in the courts of common pleas after an execution sale of real property.”

After bouncing between committees in the state House and Senate, Act 152 grew to 59 pages due to amendments related to eviction proceedings, the jurisdiction of county park police, the statute of limitations for asbestos cases and the Megan’s Law amendments. The Superior Court that reviewed Neiman’s appeal found “little relationship” between the amendments to Megan’s Law and the other provisions of Act 152 that concerned unrelated issues.

While the Superior Court could not harmonize Act 152’s different provisions, it did not strike down the Act entirely nor did it find error in Neiman’s sentence. Rather, it struck down the law’s “other extraneous unrelated provisions.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review and stayed the lower court’s order.

The legislature intervened, arguing that Act 152 should be upheld. It first argued the law’s provisions related to the “single subject of judicial remedies and sanctions.” Additionally, since the law had been in effect for over seven years, striking it down would have negative ramifications for companies facing asbestos claims, result in widespread uncertainty “in the real estate market from invalidation of deficiency claims,” and convictions due to arrests by county park police officers “could be vulnerable to attack.”

The single subject rule, the Supreme Court wrote, “creates a greater likelihood that [a bill] will receive a more considered and thorough review by legislators than if it is aggregated with other pieces of legislation pertaining to different topics into a singular ‘omnibus bill.’” It also provides “fair notice to the public and legislators of the existence” of a bill’s subject matter.

The Court found there was not a “common nexus for the myriad disparate provisions of Act 152.” It then turned to whether the Superior Court had properly severed the amendments to Megan’s Law from the remaining portions of Act 152.

The Court held the severing was in error, finding “Act 152 to be akin to the sprawling omnibus measure” that it had struck down in an earlier case. The reality of Act 152 was that its main purpose initially related to deficiency judgments, then it “metamorphosed during the legislative process to include a panoply of additional disparate subjects.”

The Supreme Court stressed that its adverse ruling regarding Act 152 resulted from its obligation to “strike down legislation which clearly and palpably violates the Constitution.” It stated its order “should, in no way, be read as repudiation of the merits of the various legislative components of Act 152, such as Megan’s Law III, which serves a vital purpose in protecting our Commonwealth’s citizens and children, in particular, from victimization by sexual predators.”

The lower court’s order was reversed and Act 152 was struck down in its entirety. The Supreme Court’s decision was issued on December 16, 2013 and amended in March 2014, with no change in the result. The Court stayed its order for 90 days to allow “the General Assembly to consider appropriate remedial measures, or to allow for a smooth transition period.” See: Commonwealth v. Neiman, 84 A.3d 603 (Pa. 2013).

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, some sex offenders who had been convicted and incarcerated for failure to register under Megan’s Law were released from prison, including Harry Dorwart Bleacher, sentenced to 6 to 12 years, who was released on January 27, 2014. It is unknown how many prisoners may be affected; those eligible for relief include sex offenders with specific registration requirements who were convicted of failure to register between 2005 and December 20, 2012. Prisoners released due to the Court’s ruling are still required to register as sex offenders.


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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Neiman