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Supreme Court Rules Automatic Lifetime Registration, Notification for Juvenile Sex Offenders Unconstitutional

In Cases Where Offender Remained Under Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

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2010-0731.  In re C.P., Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-1446.
Athens App. No. 09CA41, 2010-Ohio-1484. Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
O'Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, Lanzinger, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
O'Donnell and Cupp, JJ., dissent.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-1446.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(April 3, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio today voided as unconstitutional provisions of the Ohio Adam Walsh Act (AWA) that impose automatic lifelong registration and community notification requirements on certain juvenile sex offenders who were tried within the juvenile court system. 

In a 5-2 majority decision authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the court held that applying automatic lifetime sex offender registration and community notification requirements imposed by the AWA against an Athens County 15-year-old violated the prohibitions in the U.S. and Ohio constitutions against cruel and unusual punishment, and also violated the defendant’s constitutional right to due process of law.

The case involved a juvenile identified by the initials C.P. who was charged in the Athens County Juvenile Court with sexually assaulting a six–year-old relative. The Athens County prosecutor moved to transfer the case to adult court. The juvenile court judge found that C.P. was amendable to rehabilitation through the juvenile justice system, and that his age and mental health status rendered him “not emotionally, physically or psychologically mature enough for the transfer,” and therefore retained jurisdiction over the case.

C.P. was indicted as a “Serious Youthful Offender” (SYO) and entered admissions (the juvenile equivalent of guilty pleas) to two delinquency counts of rape and one delinquency count of kidnapping with a sexual motivation.  Based on the nature of his offenses, the court also found that he was an SYO and therefore subject to a blended juvenile/adult sentence.  The court sentenced C.P. to a three-year term of commitment to the Ohio Department of Youth Services on each count, with those terms to be served concurrently. The court also imposed a contingent sentence of three concurrent terms of five years in adult prison, which the court could activate if C.P. failed to successfully complete the juvenile his juvenile disposition.  For instance, the adult sentence could be invoked if C.P. were convicted of a criminal offense during his period of juvenile incarceration.

At his sentencing hearing, C.P. was also informed by the court that because of the nature of his offenses and his designation as an SYO, he had been classified under R.C. 2152.86(A)(1), a provision added to the state’s juvenile delinquency statutes in 2008 as part of the AWA, as a “Public-Registry-Qualified Juvenile Offender Registrant” (PRQJOR). The court advised C.P. that as a PRQJOR, he was automatically classified as a Tier III (most dangerous) sex offender under the AWA, and therefore would be subject to reporting and registration requirements that included: (1) lifetime in-person registration with local law enforcement every 90 days in any county where he lived, worked or attended school; (2) lifetime community notification requirements including the dissemination of his photo, address, and history as a sex offender to neighbors, schools, child-care facilities and other designated recipients in the area surrounding  his residence and place of employment; and (3) the posting of his photo, current address, and other personal information on a publicly-accessible Internet sex offender database maintained by the Ohio Attorney General.

C.P. appealed his automatic classification as a Tier III  offender and PRQJOR to the Fourth District Court of Appeals, arguing that R.C. 2152.86 violated his constitutional right to due process of law and his right against cruel and unusual punishment.  The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court. C.P. sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Fourth District’s ruling.

Writing for the majority in today’s decision, Justice Pfeifer began by analyzing C.P.’s claim that the automatic imposition of lifetime sex offender registration and notification requirements on him as a juvenile violated his right against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Section 9, Article I of the Ohio Constitution.

Justice Pfeifer wrote that the bulk of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence concerns “not whether a particular punishment is barbaric, but whether it is disproportionate to the crime.” One way in which  the U.S. Supreme Court considers proportionality, Pfeifer wrote, is to consider the characteristics of the offender.  He cited as examples two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions: Roper v. Simmons (2005), in which the court categorically prohibited the death penalty for defendants who committed their crimes before the age of 18; and Graham v. Florida (2010), in which the court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile who did not commit homicide. In the Graham decision, Justice Pfeifer wrote, the U.S. Supreme Court said a particular punishment should be evaluated based on a two-step analysis in which the reviewing court first considers whether there is a national consensus against that sentencing practice, and then exercises its own independent judgment whether the challenged punishment violates the Constitution.

In regard to the national consensus analysis, Justice Pfeifer noted that Ohio’s juvenile offender registration and notification requirements are virtually identical to those set by Congress in 2006 when it adopted Title I of the federal Adam Walsh Act, also known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Justice Pfeifer pointed out, however, that since Ohio became the first state to adopt a SORNA-compliant law in 2008, a large majority of states have refused to follow suit, based largely on their opposition to imposing lifetime sex offender registration and notification requirements on juveniles. 

As a result of that opposition, Justice Pfeifer observed, in 2011 the U.S. Attorney General adopted modified guidelines stating that in order to comply with SORNA, “jurisdictions need not publicly disclose information concerning persons required to register on the basis of juvenile delinquency adjudications,” and declared optional former requirements that states must post identifying information about juvenile offenders on sex offender Web sites and proactively provide their photos and other information to schools and other specified groups.

In addition to this national consensus against imposing lifetime registration and notification requirements on juveniles,  Justice Pfeifer wrote that the court’s independent analysis found that the sanctions imposed by R.C. 2152.86 were much more likely to hinder than to help juveniles obtain stable employment and reintegrate into their communities after their release from custody, went against a body of case law holding that juveniles should be treated as less morally culpable than adults, and were contrary to the primary purpose of the juvenile justice system, which is to rehabilitate rather than punish youthful offenders.

Justice Pfeifer concluded: “In sum, the limited culpability of juvenile nonhomicide offenders who remain within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the severity of lifetime registration and notification requirements of PRQJOR status, and the inadequacy of penological theory to justify the punishment all lead to the conclusion that the lifetime registration and notification requirements in R.C. 2152.86 are cruel and unusual.  We thus hold that for a juvenile offender who remains under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the Eighth Amendment forbids the automatic imposition of lifetime sex offender registration and notification requirements.”

With regard to C.P.’s claims based on denial of due process, Justice Pfeifer, citing this court’s holding in State v. D.H. (2009), wrote that ”(t)he disposition of a child is so different from the sentencing of an adult that fundamental fairness to the child demands the unique expertise of a juvenile judge.”  Justice Pfeifer quoted from D.H regarding the importance of the juvenile judge in the dispositional process: ”The court's dispositional role is at the heart of the ... differences between juvenile and adult courts. It is there that the expertise of a juvenile judge is necessary. The judge ...  must assess the strengths and weaknesses of the juvenile system vis-à-vis a particular child to determine how this particular juvenile fits within the system and whether the system is equipped to deal with the child successfully.” ...

Justice Pfeifer wrote that R.C. 2152.86 bypasses the crucial role of the juvenile judge: “R.C. 2152.86 eliminates the discretion of the juvenile judge, this essential element of the juvenile process, at the most consequential part of the dispositional process. R.C. 2152.86 requires the automatic imposition of a lifetime punishment—with no chance of reconsideration for 25 years—without benefit of a juvenile judge weighing its appropriateness. It is contrary to the juvenile system’s core emphasis on individual, corrective treatment and rehabilitation. ... R.C. 2152.86(B)(1) requires the imposition of an adult penalty for juvenile acts without input from a juvenile judge.” 

“Under R.C. 2152.86, the court cannot consider individual factors about a child or his background, cannot have a say in how often a child must register or where he must register, or determine how publication of the offense might affect rehabilitation. Fundamental fairness requires that the judge decide the appropriateness of any such penalty. The requirement in R.C. 2152.86 of automatic imposition of Tier III classification on a juvenile offender who receives an SYO dispositional sentence undercuts the rehabilitative purpose of Ohio’s juvenile system and eliminates the important role of the juvenile court’s discretion in the disposition of juvenile offenders, and thus fails to meet the due process requirement of fundamental fairness.”

Justice Pfeifer’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Yvette McGee Brown.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Robert R. Cupp entered separate dissenting opinions.

Justice O’Donnell noted that he dissented from the court’s July 2011 holding in State v. Williams that changes to Ohio’s prior sex offender registration/notification scheme enacted by passage of the AWA (S.B. 10) had rendered parts of that scheme punitive rather than regulatory in nature. Reiterating the reasoning of his Williams dissent, Justice O’Donnell wrote that in his view the registration and notification requirements imposed by S.B. 10 “are civil in nature and part of a regulatory scheme designed to protect the public from sex offenders. Because application of those requirements to juveniles pursuant to R.C. 2152.86 does not alter S.B. 10’s nonpunitive purpose, that view also applies to juveniles such as C.P.” 

Justice O’Donnell cited multiple decisions of federal courts and courts in other states holding that sex offender registration and notification requirements similar to Ohio’s are not “punishment,” and therefore do not violate the Eighth Amendment. He also pointed out that the lifetime registration requirements imposed by R.C. 2152.86 apply to only a small subset of the most serious juvenile offenders, and asserted that juveniles have no special constitutional due process right to a judicial review before being subjected to the mandatory post-release registration requirements established by the legislature.

In his dissent, Justice Cupp wrote that courts reviewing legislative enactments such as the juvenile offender registration requirements in R.C. 2152.86 are required to begin with the strong presumption that they are constitutional, and may find punitive provisions “cruel and unusual” only if the punishment is “grossly disproportionate” to the offense.  While the majority cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Graham v. Florida as precedent for today’s decision, Justice Cupp noted that Graham dealt with a penalty that was more severe than the registration requirements imposed on C.P. in this case.

“The punishments held by the United States Supreme Court to categorically violate the Eighth Amendment ban when applied to juveniles are the death penalty (in) Roper v. Simmons ... and lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole for serious, but non-homicide, crimes (in) Graham,” wrote Justice Cupp.  “I do not find the requirements at issue here pertaining to registration and notification to rise to such a level as to be even remotely comparable.”

Brooke M. Burns, 614.466.5394, for juvenile offender C.P.

George J. Reitmeier, 740.592.3208, for the state and Athens County prosecutor's office.