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Supreme Court Reverses SORNA Notification Requirement when Sex Offenders Move Overseas

The federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), 42 U.S.C. § 16901, et seq., requires registered sex offenders to advise law enforcement officials within three business days of their change of address or intent to reside in a jurisdiction subject to SORNA. However, according to an April 4, 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the law does not require offenders to notify law enforcement when they move from a SORNA-compliant state to an address outside the United States.

Lester Ray Nichols, a former resident of Kansas, abruptly relocated to the Philippines without advising law enforcement authorities in his former home state. He was charged in Kansas for failure to advise officials of his intention to move overseas. Nichols appealed and the case reached the Supreme Court, where the justices rejected the government’s argument that Nichols was required to register when he planned to relocate from a SORNA jurisdiction to another country.

The federal circuits had split on the issue, so the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, deciding in favor of Nichols. The Court reasoned that when he moved to the Philippines he had eliminated his need for registration unless he returned to the United States, because “the Philippines is not a jurisdiction under SORNA; no foreign country is.” As noted by the Court, if Congress had wanted sex offenders to provide notification before they moved overseas, it could have said so: “SORNA’s plain test – in particular Section 16913(a)’s consistent use of the present tense – therefore did not require Nichols to update his registration in Kansas once he no longer resided there.”

The Supreme Court added that “what the government asks is not a construction of a statute, but, in effect, an enlargement of it by the court,” which it declined to do. See: Nichols v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1113 (2016); 2016 U.S. LEXIS 2276.

In last month’s issue, PLN reported the recent passage of International Megan’s Law, 18 U.S.C. § 2250(b) – federal legislation that “brands” the passports of U.S. sex offenders so they can be identified when traveling abroad. The statute also requires sex offenders “to provide information required by [SORNA] relating to intended travel in foreign commerce,” including details regarding international travel, which effectively resolves the issue addressed by the Supreme Court in Nichols. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.25].

International Megan’s Law currently faces a legal challenge, though on April 13, 2016 a federal district court declined to block enforcement of the statute, finding the challenge was premature since passports had not yet been marked to denote sex offenders.

Additional source: Associated Press

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Related legal case

Nichols v. United States