Doe joined the U.S. Marines when he was 17. Six years later, he committed the crime that the Justice Department says requires him to stay on California’s sex offender registry even though he no longer qualifies for it under state law. The lawsuit describes the incident as “a consensual but inappropriate encounter” that “did not involve sexual intercourse.” But since the teenager was two years younger than California’s age of consent, that encounter resulted in criminal charges. Doe pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of sexual battery, which required him to register as a sex offender.

“Since then,” the complaint says, “Mr. Doe has dedicated himself to making amends and becoming a model citizen. He expressed sincere remorse for his crime and voluntarily underwent psychological treatment. And equipped with a healthier perspective, he pursued higher education and has had a rewarding and productive career, became a loving husband and father, and became an active participant in his church. He has done everything one is supposed to do following a criminal conviction.”

State courts officially recognized Doe’s rehabilitation, clearing his 1996 conviction in 2002 and issuing a certificate recommending an unconditional pardon in 2012. He therefore “is no longer a convicted criminal and has not registered as a sex offender for more than a decade.”

In the meantime, however, Congress approved the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). That 2006 law made a sex offender’s failure to follow state registration requirements, already a crime under state law, a federal felony. Initially, that was not a problem for Doe, since by 2012 California had removed him from the state registry. But last December, the Justice Department published SORNA regulations that required Doe, despite his expungement, to re-register with California, even though the state will not let him do that. The new rules said “only pardons on the grounds of innocence terminate registration obligations under SORNA.”

Even if Doe were able to register in California, the complaint notes, it “would mean that [he] would have to turn the clock back on the past decade and threaten his stable and productive life.” Doe “would face restrictions on everyday activities like picking his children up from school,” along with “ostracization and harassment from his community,” which would “put his hard-earned career success at risk.”

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