The Constitution’s ex post facto clause prohibits passing a law that retroactively increases the punishment for a criminal act that an offender committed before the law was passed. But in an ingenious 2003 Supreme Court ruling, a 6-3 conservative majority held that retroactive placement on a state sex offender registry–being put on a registry that was created after an offender committed his crime–doesn’t violate ex post facto because registration isn’t punishment.
Daily life for those on state sex offender registries makes that claim hard to square with reality. Nowhere is that more true than in Alabama–registrants in that state are subject to a regime every bit as grinding as that of Cold-War Soviet Russia.
Take the case of 60-year-old Michael McGuire. In 2010, after several decades as a hair stylist and jazz musician in Washington D.C., he decided to move back to his hometown of Montgomery to be with his aging mother and extended family.
He’d committed a serious crime 25 years earlier–he’d raped and assaulted his 30-year-old girlfriend, who he’d been with for five years. He was convicted of sexual assault in a Colorado court and served his full jail term, spending three years locked up and a fourth on parole.
After leaving prison, he got his life back together and had no subsequent arrests or convictions.
When in 2010 he arrived in Montgomery, he took the advice of his brother, a local attorney–he visited the police department to confirm that he wouldn’t be subject to the state’s sex offender laws. His crime, after all, happened 26 years before the state’s passage of its most recent 2011 sex offender law, and he’d never been on a registry in any of the states where he’d lived.
What police told him has sent his life into a tailspin. He’s indeed required to be on the state registry–today his photo, name, and address are on the state website. He can’t live within 2000 feet of schools, parks, or playgrounds, which puts nearly all of the city off limits to him. He pays rent on his and his wife’s apartment but can’t live there because it’s in a banned zone. The same is true for the homes of his other relatives since their apartments and homes are too close to those places where children congregate. He can’t live in a home with children, even though his crime didn’t involve a child.
No one will hire him, and he can’t take music gigs because the law also bans offenders from working within 2000 feet of places where children congregate–all of the venues that have offered him work are in banned zones. In fact, 85 percent of jobs in the city are off limits to registrants. Half of Alabama’s registrants are unemployed, eight times the statewide average.
To travel outside the city, he needs a travel permit, which he can get only by applying in person at the police department.
And as is true for all of the state’s registrants, his driver’s license includes the words CRIMINAL SEX OFFENDER in big red letters.
Today he’s homeless, living under a Montgomery bridge. He’s required to show up in person twice a week at the police department to register by filling out a three-page form. If he misses one appointment, it’s a felony. Alabama’s law requires lifetime registration, and there’s no provision allowing registrants to be removed.
Around the country, thousands like McGuire are on sex offender registries for crimes they committed years before passage of the state laws that created those registries.
In oral arguments during the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, then-lawyer John Roberts (yes, that John Roberts) argued that Alaska’s ex post facto application of its sex offender law should be preserved. Registering with the police four times a year, he said, is much like filling out an application to join Price Club.*
The John Robertses of the world may wish to believe that registration involves just a bit of paperwork. But beliefs aside, the sky really isn’t green, it’s blue. Price Club is to sex offender registration what a hotel room is to a jail cell, what a job interview is to interrogation at a CIA black site, what a conference nametag is to the yellow Star of David badge.
Courts are starting to listen–lawyers and their clients have won cases in state courts in Ohio and Maryland in the last few years. And one day, that 2003 decision, much like Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott v. Sandford, will be upended, standing as a testament to judges’ ability to reach decisions they’re comfortable with, rather than those that fit the facts.
*At another point, Solicitor General Ted Olson defended the law by telling the Justices that the reoffense rate among sex offenders is higher than for other crimes–in fact, the opposite is true.