Monday, August 16, 2021
The full Seventh Circuit today rebuffed certain constitutional challenges to Indiana's Sex-Offender Registration Act (SORA) as applied to pre-Act offenders required to register in another state. At the same time, however, the court remanded an equal protection claim for further consideration.
The ruling means that the plaintiffs still have a live challenge to the Act. And, given the court's remand instruction and the lower court's earlier ruling, it's likely a winning one.
The case, Hope v. Commissioner of Indiana Department of Correction, tests Indiana's SORA as applied to pre-act offenders who were required to register in another state before SORA's enactment. That matters, because the Indiana Supreme Court interpreted the Act not to require Indiana pre-Act offenders to register. (It said that requiring registration would violate the state constitution's Ex Post Facto Clause.) So Indiana's SORA requires pre-Act offenders to register if they were required to register in another state before SORA. But it doesn't require pre-Act offenders to register if they had no pending out-of-state registration requirement.
Offenders with an out-of-state requirement sued, arguing that the Act, as interpreted by the state supreme court, violated their right to travel, the federal Ex Post Facto Clause, and equal protection. The district court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor on all claims, and a panel of the Seventh Circuit affirmed on the right to travel claim. The full court reversed.
The court ruled that the scheme didn't violate the right to travel under the Fourteenth Amendment Privileges or Immunities Clause--"for those travelers who elect to become permanent residents, the right to be treated like other citizens of that state." That's "because it does not expressly discriminate based on residency, as consistently required by the Supreme Court." Instead, the court said that while the Act "may affect newer residents disproportionately,"
[a]s a statutory matter, SORA obligates all offenders--both old and new residents--to register based on prior convictions. Indiana's Ex Post Facto Clause then relieves a subset of those who must register from that statutory obligation. Receiving the clause's benefits, though, does not depend on when an offender became an Indiana resident but on whether one is subject to an existing registration requirements. That requirement can come from Indiana, or from another state. The twist in this case is that for those offenders like the plaintiffs, convicted before Indiana's SORA covered their crimes, such a registration obligation must come from elsewhere.
(The dissent argued that this different treatment--based solely on whether a pre-Act offender has traveled to another state or not--is the model of infringing on the right to travel.)
The court next ruled that SORA didn't violate the federal Ex Post Facto Clause, because the registration requirement isn't punitive.
But the court remanded the question whether SORA violated the Equal Protection Clause under rational basis review--and all but invited the district court to rule in favor of the plaintiffs. The court wrote,
The plaintiffs may still challenge Indiana's application of SORA to them because it treats them differently than similarly situated Indiana offenders. SORA, as modified by the Indiana Supreme Court's constitutional overlay, creates two classes of pre-SORA offenders--those who must register in Indiana, and those who are free from that requirement. Indiana distinguishes between the two groups based solely on whether the pre-SORA offender had a registration obligation in another state. For example: two lifelong Indiana residents, both with pre-SORA convictions, will be treated differently if one commutes into Chicago for work--and so is subject to Illinois's reporting requirements--while the other never leaves Indiana. The distinction holds true for offenders who attend school in another state or who have lived in another state imposing registration obligations on them. In short, two similarly situated Indiana offenders may have vastly different legal obligations simply because one of them has an out-of-state registration obligation.
The court instructed the lower court to apply rational basis review to this distinction, and cautioned that it "should be undertaken with care" and "thorough develop[ment of] the factual record." It said that "[r]ational basis review favors the State but does not ensure an automatic win."