By George Hunter . . . Michigan lawmakers are debating how to overhaul the state’s sex offender registry after a federal appeals court ruled sections of the law are unconstitutional, but Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is contending the proposed fixes don’t repair the law’s flaws.
As Democratic and Republican elected officials wrestle over the best solution to a highly charged issue, a federal judge has freed the state’s 44,000 convicted sex offenders from complying with registry reporting requirements because of the novel coronavirus outbreak and confusion about the current registry.
Among the state’s registry restrictions the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down in 2016 were a ban on convicted sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools and a 2011 revision of the law that put sex offenders back on the registry permanently if they committed a felony after they had served their sentences and had been taken off the registry.
The appeals court ruled that parts of the registry violated the 1st and 14th Amendments, and the constitutional protection against being punished “ex post facto,” or retroactively.
Detroit U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland has given the Legislature a deadline to amend the law by no later than 14 days after the coronavirus state of emergency ends. The revised law would need to take effect within 60 days.
If the Republican-controlled Legislature fails to change the law with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approval, the current law would be considered invalid and sex offenders wouldn’t have to deal with any reporting requirements. The GOP majority and Whitmer already have had trouble reaching deals on the budget, road repair funding and other controversial issues.
State Rep. Jim Lower, R-Greenville, introduced legislation that would make at least seven changes to the law. They include allowing sex offender registrants who are parents or legal guardians to enter a student safety zone under certain circumstances, and banning individuals from being listed on the registry if they committed a felony after July 1, 2011, and had previously committed a listed sex offense.
Lawmakers and attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the federal suit met May 6 to discuss the bill, which has been the subject of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.
“Without the changes, the law becomes almost entirely unenforceable,” Lower said in an email. “In addition to the court required changes, I believe we have an opportunity to make the law easier to enforce/follow and have a real conversation about which types of offenders should and shouldn’t been on the registry and how long they should be required to register.”
But in a May 11 letter to the Judiciary Committee, Nessel argued the proposed bill has the same constitutional problems as the existing registry law.
“The bill needs considerably more work if the state is going to avoid future litigation over the constitutionality of its registry,” wrote the Democratic attorney general, adding particular areas of concern are the registry’s “exclusion zones” prohibiting offenders to live, work or loiter within 1,000 feet of schools, and “its onerous in-person reporting requirements.”