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Court Rules 2010 Bodyke Decision Did Not Eliminate Judicial Review of 'Adam Walsh Act' Sex Offender Classifications

Also Upholds Pretrial Dismissal of AWA Indictment Where Law Not Applicable to Defendant

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2010-1660.  State v. Palmer, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-580.
Franklin App. Nos. 09AP-956 and 09AP-957, 2010-Ohio-2421.  Judgment of the court of appeals reversed and cause remanded.
O'Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp,  and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-580.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(Feb. 21, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio held today that its 2010 decision in State v. Bodyke, which invalidated part of the Ohio Adam Walsh Act (AWA) as unconstitutional, did not invalidate the statutory petition process by which a sex offender may seek judicial review of his classification. The Court also held that when a trial court finds that a defendant who has been indicted for failing to register as a sex offender under the AWA is not a person subject to registration, the trial court has authority to grant a pretrial motion to dismiss the indictment.

The court’s 7-0 decision, authored by Justice Yvette McGee Brown, reversed rulings by the 10th District Court of Appeals.

The case involved Paul Palmer of Columbus, who pleaded guilty to sexual battery in 1995, served a prison term for that offense, and was released from prison prior to the July 1, 1997 effective date of Ohio’s first comprehensive sex offender registration law enacted as Megan’s Law.  Under  Megan’s Law, persons like Palmer who completed their prison sentences before July 1, 1997, were not subject to classification as sex offenders or to the law’s registration or community notification provisions.

In 2007, the General Assembly enacted the Ohio Adam Walsh Act, which replaced Megan’s Law with a more stringent sex offender classification scheme. Under the AWA, all former sex offenders were subject to classification into one of three “tiers” based on their offenses regardless of when their offense was committed.  Palmer was notified that, based on his 1995 sexual battery conviction, he had been classified as a Tier III (most dangerous) offender and as such would be required to register with law enforcement in his county of residence and county of employment every 90 days for the rest of his life, and also was subject to community notification requirements.

Palmer filed a petition in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas under a provision of the AWA, R.C. 2250.031(E), that entitled classified sex offenders to “a court hearing to contest the application to the offender of the new registration requirements.” While that petition remained pending, a grand jury indicted Palmer on felony counts of failing to verify his current address and failing to report a change of address as required by the AWA.

Palmer filed a motion asking the trial court to dismiss the indictment, and to rule immediately on his  pending petition challenging his classification under the AWA. The trial court ruled that Ohio’s sex-offender regulations did not apply to Palmer, and granted his motion to dismiss the indictment.  Additionally, the trial court ordered the removal of Palmer’s name from any “local, state or federal” lists of sex offenders.

The state appealed, and on review the 10th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s rulings.
As a preliminary matter, the 10th  District concluded that the trial court exceeded its authority when it dismissed the indictment because it looked to “evidence outside the face of the indictment” and “address[ed] the very issue to be determined at trial.” Additionally, the 10th District found the dismissal erroneous in light of the language of the AWA explicitly applying its provisions retroactively to all past sex offenders regardless of the date of their offense. Finally, the appellate court reversed the trial court order requiring Palmer’s removal from lists of sex offenders because the order stemmed from the erroneous determination that the requirements of the AWA did not apply to Palmer.

Palmer sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 10th District’s rulings. 

Writing for a unanimous Court in today’s decision, Justice McGee Brown noted that since the 10th District’s decision in this case  was announced, the Supreme Court of Ohio has issued two decisions, State v. Bodyke (2010) and State v. Williams (2011), holding that certain provisions of the AWA are unconstitutional and may not be enforced.  In Bodyke, Justice McGee Brown explained, the Court held that the AWA provision authorizing the attorney general to reclassify former offenders who had previously been classified by a judge under Megan’s Law violated the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government.  In Williams, she said, the Court held that the provision of the AWA imposing its new classifications and registration requirements on offenders whose crimes were committed before the AWA was enacted violated the constitutional prohibition against retroactive laws.

In order to resolve the questions of law presented in this case, Justice McGee Brown wrote, it was necessary for the Court to analyze the impact of Bodyke and Williams on the specific statutory provisions interpreted by the 10th District.

With regard to the portion of the AWA granting offenders a court hearing to contest their classifications, Justice McGee Brown wrote: “Palmer asks us to reinstate the disposition of his petition below, in which the trial court ruled that the Adam Walsh Act does not apply to Palmer’s conviction. The state, however, argues that the ruling was a nullity because Bodyke abolished the petition process. The Tenth District did not review the viability of the petition process. Upon the state’s request, however, we address the issue now to resolve disagreement among the courts of appeals.”

“Portions of R.C. 2950.031 and 2950.032 impermissibly instructed the Ohio attorney general, an officer of the executive branch, to reopen final judgments of the judicial branch. ... That instruction violated Ohio’s separation-of-powers doctrine. ... To remedy the violation, in Bodyke we declared unenforceable ‘the unconstitutional component’ of the Adam Walsh Act’s reclassification provisions. However, we held that the component could be severed from the rest of the act, and accordingly, we‘left in place ... the remainder of the AWA, which is capable of being read and of standing alone.’”

“Based on the holding of Bodyke, the state’s argument that the petition process was invalidated lacks merit. The petition process of R.C. 2950.031(E) and 2950.032(E) does not violate the separation-of-powers doctrine. The petition process does not require another branch of government to intrude upon the province of the judiciary. The invalidated reclassification provisions created an unconstitutional relationship between two branches of government. By contrast, the petition process involves only one branch of government, the judiciary. Therefore, Bodyke’s severance of the unconstitutional reclassification process left intact the petition process, which ‘can be given effect without the invalid’ reclassification provisions. ... The Adam Walsh Act entitled Palmer to contest his classification. We find no error in the trial court’s compliance with R.C. 2950.031(E). Accordingly, we reject the state’s argument that the trial court lacked power to review Palmer’s claims after Bodyke.” 

With regard to the second disputed issue in the case, which was whether a trial court may dismiss an indictment under R.C. Chapter 2950 if Ohio’s sex-offender regulations do not apply to the accused,
Justice McGee Brown wrote: “The answer is clear. Under Crim.R. 12(C)(2), trial courts may judge before trial whether an indictment is defective. Without a doubt, an indictment is defective if it alleges violations of R.C. Chapter 2950 by a person who is not subject to that chapter. There is no set of circumstances under which such a person may violate the law’s requirements. This is especially so where, as in Palmer’s case, an indictment depends on the unconstitutional application of law. Therefore, dismissal is appropriate.” 

“Contrary to the Tenth District’s analysis ... , such a determination does not embrace the general issue for trial.  The general issue for trial in this context is whether the accused violated the law as set forth in the indictment. Where the law simply does not apply, the trial court is well within its authority to dismiss the indictment before trial.  In reaching that determination, the trial court may look beyond the four corners of the indictment.”

“The state also asks us to review the trial court’s order that Palmer’s ‘name be removed from all sexually oriented lists maintained by the local, state or federal government,’” wrote Justice McGee Brown. “R.C. 2950.031(E) required the trial court, after ruling on Palmer’s petition, to notify the sheriff and the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation of its decision. It is not clear which other agencies or lists, if any, were contemplated by the trial court’s order.  On remand, we direct the trial court to clarify its order in this respect.”

Steven L. Taylor, 614.462.3555, for the state and Franklin County prosecutor's office.

David L. Strait, 614.525.8872, for Paul Palmer.