Pennsylvania Legislature attempts to “fix” unconstitutional law

By Paula Reed Ward . . . A bill introduced this week in Harrisburg attempts to fix flaws in the state’s sex-offender registration system identified in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in July and could affect more than 10,000 registrants.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, called it “imperative” to amend the law.

“We have worked hard to come up with a fix that will do just that and are expediting this fix,” Mr. Marsico said.

On Tuesday, the legislation cleared the House Judiciary Committee, of which Mr. Marsico is chairman, and could go to the floor for a vote by the full House as soon as next week.

Karen Dalton, a committee attorney who helped draft the legislation, said that without action, more than 10,000 sex offenders sentenced before the state’s registration law took effect Dec. 20, 2012, would have to come off the registry.

That would mean victims of those who have been deemed sexually violent predators would no longer get notice of changes in their circumstance, such as where they live or work or what type of car they drive.

The case that spurred the need for legislation involved Jose Muniz, who was found guilty in Cumberland County in 2007 of indecent assault. Under what was then Megan’s Law, he would have had to register as a sex offender for 10 years. But Muniz failed to appear at his sentencing. When he was apprehended in 2014, Megan’s Law had been replaced by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which called for a lifetime registration.

Muniz challenged the registration as unconstitutional because he said it increased punishment after the fact.

The state Supreme Court agreed, finding that SORNA’s registration requirements were punitive. But the decision provided no guidance, causing upheaval in the criminal justice system, as neither prosecutors nor the Pennsylvania State Police, which administers the registration program, knew how to address the court’s concerns.

Ms. Dalton said the legislation puts back into effect the Megan’s Law statute provisions to apply to offenders convicted prior to SORNA’s implementation. It also addresses the Supreme Court’s concerns that SORNA is punitive by backing off from some of the more onerous registration provisions.

For example, a person required to register for life, as well as those labeled Sexually Violent Predators, could petition to be relieved of the requirements after 25 years.

“It’s going to be completely up to the judge’s discretion,” Ms. Dalton said.

In addition, offenders required to register quarterly, who previously had to appear to update their status in person, she said, could do it by phone if they have met all their requirements.

Ms. Dalton said the changes are meant to comply with Muniz, as well as a recent Superior Court decision out of Butler County that found that the state’s process for declaring an offender a Sexually Violent Predator was unconstitutional because of Muniz.

The legislation, she said, is a bipartisan effort and had input from the governor’s office, state police, the Board of Pardons, the Sex Offender Assessment Board, the Office of Victim Advocate and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

“We think it’s important for public safety to know who’s a convicted sex offender and where they’re residing,” said Richard Long, executive director of the DAs’ association.

But Aaron Marcus, an assistant public defender in Philadelphia, said the new bill, as well as all sex-offender registration laws, “create a false sense of security and a false sense of fear.”

“The Legislature is being reactive and has not once looked to see if this law does what they want, which is keep people safe.”

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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