Sex offenses in Massachusetts, or anywhere, elicit a strong reaction on the part of the public and the media – and understandably so. This is especially true when the offenses involve children or the vulnerable – again, with good reason. Wisely, we in Massachusetts (and other states also) have enacted laws requiring persons convicted of sex offenses to publicly register as sex offenders with a special agency that monitors such convicts, following their conviction and/or release from prison. But how far should the law go when dealing with someone who has been convicted of a single sex offense, which involved substance abuse, many years ago,? Should that person be required to register publicly as a sex offender indefinitely, for so long as he or she remains a resident of Massachusetts?
The Massachusetts Appeals Court handed down an interesting decision this past week, dealing with the requirement that sex offenders in Massachusetts must register potentially for life as such, with the state Sex Offender Registration Board (SORB.) SORB is the state agency that is charged with registering and monitoring persons either convicted of, or who have accepted guilty pleas on, sexual offenses. To date, if a defendant in a criminal prosecution either pled guilty to or was convicted of a sex crime, he or she would be required to register with SORB indefinitely – no matter what circumstances surrounded the original crime, or how old the offense was. The Massachusetts Appeals Court has now modified that requirement.
In John DOE, Sex Offender Registry Board No. 24341 vs. SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY BOARD, the Appeals Court heard the case of “Doe” (a pseudonym,) who claimed that he was wrongly being required to continue to register with SORB as a sex offender, based upon a single offense 25 years ago, which he claimed was fueled by a drinking problem that he no longer has. The appellant was convicted in 1984 of assault with intent to rape, after leaving a Quincy bar. Since his conviction 25 years ago, “Doe” had enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA,) given up drinking, led a responsible life and had experienced no trouble with law enforcement or been involved in criminal offenses of any kind. A hearing officer at SORB concluded that though Doe posed a “low” risk, he still posed a risk, that the details of his personal rehabilitation were not material, and that he therefore was still required to register as a Level One sex offender (the least serious level classification within SORB.) Doe appealed to a Superior Court judge, who affirmed SORB’s findings. Doe’s attorney then brought the matter to the Appeals Court for review.
The Appeals Court ordered SORB to reconsider their decision, taking into account the man’s broader life history since his arrest, before determining whether he is still a risk and requiring him to continue to register as a sex offender. I’ll explain the legal reasoning and the details of why they did this, in my next post.