The justices ruled 5-2 the 2007 Ohio Adam Walsh Law can only be applied to offenders who committed their crimes after it became effective, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reported. The court reversed a decision by a state appeals court.
"The General Assembly has the authority, indeed the obligation, to protect the public from sex offenders," Justice Paul Pfeifer said. "It may not, however, consistent with the Ohio Constitution, 'impose new or additional burdens, duties, obligations, or liabilities as to a past transaction.'"
Justice Terrence O'Donnell in the minority opinion said the court has said in previous rulings that requiring sex offenders to register and providing community notification in some cases are civil sanctions, not criminal penalties.
The Ohio Supreme Court, in a ruling published today, has declared that imposing "enhanced" sex offender registration and community notification requirements on previously-convicted sex offenders, as required by the Ohio Adam Walsh Act (AWA) which was contained in 2007's Senate Bill (SB) 10 is a violation of the Ohio Constitution.
"When the General Assembly adopted the AWA by enacting 2007 S.B. 10," stated a Ohio Supreme Court press release, "it included statutory language requiring that, regardless of the date on which a defendant’s crime was committed, state courts sentencing sex offenders on or after July 1, 2007 must apply a new three-tiered AWA offender classification scheme and must include in the defendant’s sentence registration and community notification requirements set forth in the AWA that are more severe than similar provisions in the prior, Megan’s Law, version of the statute."
The decision was based on Article II, Sec. 28 of the Ohio Constitution, which states in part, "The general assembly shall have no power to pass retroactive laws." Similar wording can be found in the U.S. Constitution as well, where one clause in Article I, Sec. 9 reads, "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto ["after the fact"] Law shall be passed."
The case at issue was State v. George Williams, where the defendant had been convicted for engaging in sexual conduct with a minor—conduct which took place prior to July, 2007, although Williams was convicted on the charges in December, 2007, after SB 10 had been passed.
"Prior to his sentencing hearing," the Supreme Court's press release stated, "Williams entered a motion asking the trial court to sentence him under the Megan’s Law sex offender classification scheme that was in effect on the date of his offense, rather than under the AWA classification scheme. The trial court overruled Williams’ motion. Pursuant to the AWA he was classified as a Tier II offender, which required him to register with the sheriff in his county of residence, and in any other county in which he worked or attended school, every 180 days for the next 25 years." Under Megan's Law, his registration and reporting requirements would have been limited to 10 years.
Williams appealed that ruling under the ex post facto/retroactivity clauses of both the Ohio and U.S. Constitutions, as well as arguing violation of the U.S. Constitution's due process clauses and its ban on double jeopardy.
Another portion of the AWA, which would have allowed the Ohio Attorney General to reclassify sex offenders without the necessity of judicial approval, was overturned by the same court just over one year ago.
The Ohio Supreme Court's 5-2 decision, authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, overturning the AWA was largely based on the fact that while several state decisions had held that the registration requirements of Megan's Law were considered remedial rather than punitive in nature, "Following the enactment of SB 10, all doubt has been removed: R.C. Chapter 2950 [the AWA] is punitive," Justice Pfeifer stated in the majority opinion. "The statutory scheme has changed dramatically since this court described (in [State v.] Cook) the registration process imposed on sex offenders as an inconvenience 'comparable to renewing a driver’s license.' ... And it has changed markedly since this court concluded in [State v.] Ferguson that R.C. Chapter 2950 was remedial...
"Based on these significant changes to the statutory scheme governing sex offenders, we are no longer convinced that R.C. Chapter 2950 is remedial, even though some elements of it remain remedial...," the high court concluded. "We conclude that SB 10, as applied to Williams and any other sex offender who committed an offense prior to the enactment of SB 10, violates Section 28, Article II of the Ohio Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from enacting retroactive laws."
"The Ohio Supreme Court decision in Williams does a really good job of explaining how in light of these internet websites that we now have, and community notification and criminal penalties attaching and more periodic registration in person with a sheriff there, all of these measures are looking more and more and more like punishment and less and less and less like a driver's license," one attorney analyzed, "and as that shift has happened, it's become more like criminal punishment, and really, the Ohio Supreme Court is the first top court in a state to characterize it that way."
Kinsley said that through her discovery motions in the case, it had been revealed that hundreds of people in Ohio will be affected by today's decision, and will now be able to get on with their lives without the stigma of appearing on sex offender websites.
Imposing enhanced registration and community notification requirements in the 2007 Ohio Adam Walsh Act against defendants whose crimes were committed before the effective date of that law violates a constitutional prohibition on the General Assembly enacting retroactive laws, the justices declared.
The 5-2 decision, which reversed a ruling by the 12th District Court of Appeals, was written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.
"The General Assembly has the authority, indeed the obligation, to protect the public from sex offenders," Pfeifer said. "It may not, however, consistent with the Ohio Constitution, 'impose new or additional burdens, duties, obligations, or liabilities as to a past transaction.' "
Joining the majority opinion were Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Yvette McGee Brown.
Justice Terrence O'Donnell authored the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Robert R. Cupp.
Today's decision came on the appeal of George Williams of Warren County, convicted in December 2007 for engaging in sexual conduct with a minor an offense that occurred before the Adam Walsh Act took effect. Williams asked the judge to sentence him under the previous sex offender classification setup, known as Megan's Law.
The judge rejected that motion and classified him under the more stringent Adam Walsh Act as a Tier II offender, which required him to register with the sheriff in his home county and in any other county in which he worked or attended school, every 180 days for the ensuing 25 years.
Williams appealed, but was turned down by the 12th District Court of Appeals.
Pfeifer noted that in earlier Supreme Court decisions on previous changes in the sex offender law, justices upheld the changes because they were more remedial than punitive, and thus the constitutional ban on retroactive laws did not apply. But the changes in the Adam Walsh Act made them punitive, and therefore unconstitutional.