Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ohio Supreme Court Tips Hand on Sex Offender Classification Ruling? Ohio Supreme Court Tips Hand on Sex Offender Classification Law?

While this posting comes from a commercial attorney web site, it provides very interesting information we had not previously seen.

Today’s ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court in State v. Clayborn, 2010-Ohio-2123 [PDF] may offer some insight into whether the Court will strike down the Adam Walsh Act, which reclassified sex offenders and in many cases extended indefinitely their reporting or registration requirements.

The issue in Clayborn was simply the amount of time in which an offender who is classified under the Adam Walsh Act has to appeal. Appellate Rule 4 states that in a criminal case, a party has 30 days after entry of judgment to appeal. But in a civil case, a party has up to 30 days after being served with notice of the entry of judgment. In other words, in a civil case if the clerk fails to serve notice of the judgment under Civ.R. 58(B), the appeal time is extended, but in a civil case it’s not. The Court held that sex offender classifications under the Adam Walsh Act can only be appealed under the more stringent criminal rule, not the more lenient civil rule.

What does this have to do with the validity of the Act itself? Good question. The Adam Walsh Act, also known as R.C. Chapter 2950, required the state to re-classify all existing sex offenders into one of three new tiers. The reporting requirements for each tier were significantly more stringent than the prior reporting requirements. For example, an offender who had been convicted of a sexual battery may have been previously classified as a sexual offender and ordered to register annually for ten years. Under the Adam Walsh Act, that person (so long as they were still within that ten-year notification period) would be classified as a Tier III offender and would have to register every 90 days for life.

Many offenders have challenged the law as unconstitutional. A variety of theories are usually trotted out, including the separation of powers doctrine, equal protection, double jeopardy, and plea-bargain-as-contract. Particularly relevant here, though, is that the petitioners usually argue that the Adam Walsh Act violates the prohibition on retroactive laws in the Ohio Constitution (Article II, Section 28) or the ex post facto clause in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Sections 9-10).

To my knowledge, all Ohio appellate courts have rejected these arguments to date.

(actually, at least two appellate courts in Ohio have ruled Ohio Senate Bill 10 to be unconstitutional. See Ohio vs. Spangler and Ohio vs. Ettenger but most courts have indeed rejected challenges...)

They tend to rely on the 1998 Ohio Supreme Court case of State v. Cook (83 Ohio St.3d 404), in which the Court approved the sex offender classification law enacted in 1997, known as Megan’s Law. The Cook Court held, among other things, that the sex offender law was a “merely remedial” law, and not a “substantive” law. The Court explained that “the General Assembly’s purpose behind R.C. Chapter 2950 is to promote public safety and bolster the public’s confidence in Ohio’s criminal and mental health systems,” and further found that “[t]he statute is absolutely devoid of any language indicating an intent to punish.” As directly and bluntly as possible, the Court said that “R.C. Chapter 2950, on its face, clearly is not punitive.”

“Merely remedial” and “not punitive” are other ways of saying “civil, not criminal.” In other words, the Cook Court’s approval of the classification system is based on a finding that the sex offender registration was a civil statute, not a criminal statute.

The significance of the Clayborn holding should be evident: the Court has now said, at least for purposes of protecting appellate rights, that the Adam Walsh Act must be treated as a criminal statute, not a civil statute.

Challenges to the Adam Walsh Act are pending before the Court right now. In November, for example, the Court heard argument in In re: Darian J. Smith, in which the petitioner contested the validity of the Adam Walsh Act on ex post facto and retroactivity grounds (docket available here). The decision in Clayton may indicate a tendency to strike down the Adam Walsh Act, or at least its retroactive application.

The four consolidated cases pending before the Ohio Supreme Court (which includes Darian J. Smith vs. Ohio) can be found here.