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Federal judge rules state must rewrite its sex offender registry law, or stop enforcing it

Ryan Grimes
Michigan Radio

The state of Michigan will no longer be able to enforce key parts of its Sex Offender Registry Act, unless state legislators write a new law by this summer.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland issued an opinion today that will force the state to stop enforcing parts of the law that were ruled unconstitutional, and from enforcing any part of the law against people whose offenses happened before April 12, 2011. Lawyers in the case have until March to come up with a plan for how to notify the more than 40,000 people currently on the sex offender registry. Sixty days after that plan is submitted, key parts of the state's current sex offender registry will become unenforceable.

"The law can't be enforced, it has to be rewritten," says Miriam Aukerman, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. 

The opinion means the state would no longer prevent convicted sex offenders from living, working or “loitering” near a school. It also can’t force offenders to report in person and give updated phone and email addresses to the state.

Parts of Michigan’s sex offender registry law were declared unconstitutional by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District in 2016.

Since that time, the law has remained in effect.

In his ruling striking down the law, Judge Cleland blamed the state Legislature for failing to write a new law.

“For several years, registrants have been forced to comply with unconstitutional provisions of SORA,” Cleland wrote. “The parties, and this court, expected that the Sixth Circuit’s ruling would spur legislative actions, and for some time, it appeared that the Legislature was poised to pass a new and comprehensive statute, obviating the need for this opinion. Unfortunately, the Legislature was not able to finalize a new registration statute.”

In the absence of a new statute, Cleland concluded the existing law must be declared null and void.  

“[U]ntil such time as the Legislature acts, SORA will be unenforceable against a large portion of registrants and may be enforced only in part against the remaining registrants,” Cleland wrote.

The state is also required to notify offenders on the list of the ruling.

The parties in the case have until March 13th to agree on how the more than 40,000 people on the registry will be notified. After that agreement is submitted to the court, the ruling takes effect in 60 days. The state legislature has until that point to pass a new law, otherwise the current law will be unenforceable.

This story has been corrected to reflect that lawyers have until March to come up with a notification plan for registrants, and that the law remains in effect until 60 days after that plan is submitted. The story has also been updated to include reaction to the opinion.

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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