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Court: Much of Michigan sex offender registry not enforceable until fixed

jail bars
Michigan is looking to reform its juvenile justice system, which routinely incarcerates teens for noncriminal offenses.

Major portions of a Michigan sex offender registry are either too vague or violate the First Amendment rights of people on the list, rendering them unconstitutional, a federal court in Port Huron ruled Friday

The Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) requires people convicted of certain sex offenses to regularly report information such as their phone numbers, address, email addresses, instant messaging handles, website logins and more, and also bars them from working, living or loitering near a school — all of which can no longer be enforced against any registrant, U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland ruled. 

For people whose offense occurred before those provisions were added to the law in 2011, the entire SORA is unenforceable. 

This isn’t the first time Michigan’s sex offender law has been struck down: Parts of it were declared unconstitutional in 2015, 2016 and 2019 as the Legislature was expected to modify the law to bring it into compliance. But the Legislature didn’t act, and the state continued to enforce the law as written.

“Faced with the continued violation of their rights, Plaintiffs returned to this court to remedy (the state’s) ongoing violations,” Cleland wrote. 

He said he believes the ruling will spur action to change the law, “but until 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.”

That means pressure on the Legislature and the governor: Until lawmakers can come up with a better system, the system will largely cease to exist. Cleland’s ruling will go into effect 60 days after the final judgment is submitted, “principally to allow time for the legislature to craft and enact a new statute,” he wrote. 

Until then, the ruling means the state cannot force convicted sex offenders on the registry to avoid school areas or provide updated contact information to the state, and those who committed sex offenses before 2011 will be taken off the registry entirely. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, “is very concerned about the impact of today’s ruling,” spokeswoman Amber McCann told Bridge via email. “The Senate will begin work on legislation to bring the registry into compliance in order to ensure public safety.”

Friday’s decision concludes two cases against the state challenging the registry. One case was brought by six Michigan residents who were retroactively required to register for life after the amendments to the law went into effect and argued they couldn’t be forced to comply with a new law punishing them for a crime they committed before the law existed. 

The other case, a class-action lawsuit, argued the law is unconstitutional for all registrants because it is too vague and violates the First Amendment

“Today’s decision is a win for the public safety of Michigan communities,” Miriam Aukerman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan which helped bring the class action suit, said in a statement Friday. 

“The registry is an ineffective and bloated system that makes Michigan communities less safe by making it more difficult for survivors to report abuse, sabotaging people’s efforts to re-enter society, and wasting scarce police resources on hyper-technicalities.”

There is a national version of SORA, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which has been ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and has more limited reporting requirements and exclusion zones than Michigan.

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