As discussed in a previous blog, a recent Supreme Court ruling opened the door for the possibility that Pennsylvania’s update to Megan’s Law: Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA ”) could be unconstitutional as applied to juvenile offenders. As written currently, the law requires juvenile sex offenders to register for life. A recent decision by a York County Court of Common Pleas Judge, the Honorable John C. Uhler, declared SORNA unconstitutional as applied to juvenile offenders, both retroactively and prospectively.
In the Court’s forty-one page opinion, the law is found to be unconstitutional based on an analysis of the Ex Post Facto Clause and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. This case involved seven juveniles who had been adjudicated delinquent for qualifying sex offenses prior to SORNA’s enactment. Because SORNA applies retroactively, these juveniles were subject to the lifetime registration requirements of the new law.
The judge first found that the law was unconstitutional because it violates the Ex Post Facto Clause by retroactively imposing harsher penalties on juveniles who had been adjudicated before SORNA was enacted. The Court reasoned that the registration requirements for juvenile offenders are punitive in nature, and therefore cannot be applied retroactively. According to the Court, the disabilities and restraints imposed by SORNA on juveniles are major and direct, especially in considering the strict penalties for non-compliance. The Court largely disregarded the multitude of prior cases which held that registration under Megan’s law is not punitive and therefore can be applied retroactively. The Court reasoned that none of those cases analyzed the current law and applied only to adult offenders.
Next, the Court analyzed the law as applied to juveniles under the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment contained in both the federal and state constitutions, and found the law to be unconstitutional as applied to any juvenile. Here, the Court relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller and reasoned that SORNA does not allow a court to consider the many unique attributes of youth and juvenile offenders. SORNA creates a “one-size fits all” approach which was specifically rejected by the Miller Court in dealing with juveniles. The Court reasoned that SORNA’s lifetime registration requirement for juveniles failed to consider the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile system, a juvenile’s lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility, their vulnerability to negative influences, and the relatively low recidivism rate for juvenile offenders.
Lastly, the Court analyzed the law under due process requirements of the constitution, but found the argument too speculative to apply. The Court stated that one has a fundamental right to reputation, which cannot be abridged without compliance with constitutional standards of due process. There was no evidence presented that the juveniles’ registration information would be improperly disseminated to third parties and therefore did not rise to the level of a substantive due process violation.
This case is likely to be appealed to the Superior Court and may be decided broadly (as this court did) regarding SORNA as applied to all juveniles. However, because this case involved only juveniles who were affected by SORNA’s retroactive clause, it is possible that the Superior Court will limit its review to that sole issue.