Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held that recent amendments to Michigan’s Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) are unconstitutional because they impose retroactive punishment on sex offenders in violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on ex post facto laws. Among other things, the plaintiffs argued that amendments to Michigan’s SORA increased the severity of its requirements after their convictions imposed retroactive punishment. In John Does #1-5 v. Snyder, the Sixth Circuit agreed.

Judge Alice M. Batchelder wrote for the court, joined by Judges Gilbert S. Merritt and Bernice B. Donald. Her opinion for the court begins.

Like many states, Michigan has amended its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) on a number of occasions in recent years for the professed purpose of making Michigan communities safer and aiding law enforcement in the task of bringing recidivists to justice. Thus, what began in 1994 as a non-public registry maintained solely for law enforcement use . . . has grown into a byzantine code governing in minute detail the lives of the state’s sex offenders . . . Over the first decade or so of SORA’s existence, most of the changes centered on the role played by the registry itself. In 1999, for example, the legislature added the requirement that sex offenders register in person (either quarterly or annually, depending on the offense) and made the registry available online, providing the public with a list of all registered sex offenders’ names, addresses, biometric data, and, since 2004, photographs. . . . Michigan began taking a more aggressive tack in 2006, however, when it amended SORA to prohibit registrants (with a few exceptions . . .) from living, working, or “loitering”1 within 1,000 feet of a school. . . . In 2011, the legislature added the requirement that registrants be divided into three tiers, which ostensibly correlate to current dangerousness, but which are based, not on individual assessments, but solely on the crime of conviction. . . . The 2011 amendments also require all registrants to appear in person “immediately” to update information such as new vehicles or “internet identifiers” (e.g., a new email account). . . . Violations carry heavy criminal penalties.

The Plaintiffs in this case—identified here only as five “John Does” and one “Mary Doe”—are registered “Tier III” sex offenders currently residing in Michigan. It is undisputed on appeal that SORA’s 2006 and 2011 amendments apply to them retroactively. That law has had a significant impact on each of them that reaches far beyond the stigma of simply being identified as a sex offender on a public registry. As a result of the school zone restrictions, for example, many of the Plaintiffs have had trouble finding a home in which they can legally live or a job where they can legally work. These restrictions have also kept those Plaintiffs who have children (or grandchildren) from watching them participate in school plays or on school sports teams, and they have kept Plaintiffs from visiting public playgrounds with their children for fear of “loitering.” Plaintiffs are also subject to the frequent inconvenience of reporting to law enforcement in person whenever they change residences, change employment, enroll (or unenroll) as a student, change their name, register a new email address or other “internet identifier,” wish to travel for more than seven days, or buy or begin to use a vehicle (or cease to own or use a vehicle).

After an extensive analysis that explains why the SORA amendments are punitive and, therefore, qualify as retroactive punishment, Judge Batchelder concludes:

A regulatory regime that severely restricts where people can live, work, and “loiter,” that categorizes them into tiers ostensibly corresponding to present dangerousness without any individualized assessment thereof, and that requires time-consuming and cumbersome in-person reporting, all supported by—at best—scant evidence that such restrictions serve the professed purpose of keeping Michigan communities safe, is something altogether different from and more troubling than Alaska’s first-generation registry law. SORA brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction. It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins, not only of society, but often, as the record in this case makes painfully evident, from their own families, with whom, due to school zone restrictions, they may not even live. It directly regulates where registrants may go in their daily lives and compels them to interrupt those lives with great frequency in order to appear in person before law enforcement to report even minor changes to their information.

We conclude that Michigan’s SORA imposes punishment. And while many (certainly not all) sex offenses involve abominable, almost unspeakable, conduct that deserves severe legal penalties, punishment may never be retroactively imposed or increased. Indeed, the fact that sex offenders are so widely feared and disdained by the general public implicates the core countermajoritarian principle embodied in the Ex Post Facto clause. As the founders rightly perceived, as dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice. Such lawmaking has “been, in all ages, [a] favorite and most formidable instrument[] of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 84, supra at 444 (Alexander Hamilton). It is, as Justice Chase argued, incompatible with both the words of the Constitution and the underlying first principles of “our free republican governments.” Calder, 3 U.S. at 388–89; accord The Federalist No. 44, supra at 232 (James Madison) (“[E]x post facto laws . . . are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”). The retroactive application of SORA’s 2006 and 2011 amendments to Plaintiffs is unconstitutional, and it must therefore cease.