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Court News Ohio

Sex-Offender Registration and Notification Mandates Are Constitutional

State law requires convicted sex offenders to register and to verify their addresses periodically with authorities. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that those requirements for certain offenders do not amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The obligations for Tier II sex offenders “are not so extreme as to be grossly disproportionate to the crime or shocking to a reasonable person and to the community’s sense of justice,” Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote in the Court’s lead opinion, concluding that the requirements violate neither the U.S Constitution nor the Ohio Constitution.

The decision affirmed the judgment of the Second District Court of Appeals.

Young Man Must Report to Authorities for 25 Years
Travis Blankenship, 21, and a 15-year-old girl identified as M.H. started talking online in 2011 through the social media site PhoneZoo.com. During one conversation, they shared their ages. The two met and became involved sexually. M.H. stated that their sexual relationship was consensual.

Blankenship was charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor between 13 and 16 years old. He pled guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to five years of community control with conditions that included six months in jail. The court released Blankenship after he served 12 days.

In addition, he was categorized as a Tier II sex offender/child-victim offender as mandated by state law. The designation required him to register in person with the sheriffs in the counties where he lives, works, and attends school. He also must verify his home address, place of employment, and school location in person every 180 days for 25 years.

Blankenship appealed, and the Second District determined that the sex-offender requirements of his sentence did not violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Ohio’s sex-offender registration and notification laws “do not meet the high burden of being so extreme as to be grossly disproportionate to the crime or shocking to a reasonable person.
- Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger

Ohio’s sex-offender registration and notification laws “do not meet the high burden of being so extreme as to be grossly disproportionate to the crime or shocking to a reasonable person.
- Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger

Ohio’s Notification Law
Under Ohio law, convicted sex offenders are classified into “tiers” based on their offenses. Blankenship’s crime is a fourth-degree felony and is categorized as “Tier II” because he was more than four years older than M.H., and he had no prior convictions for sex offenses. Justice Lanzinger noted that the law does not allow a trial judge to modify these classifications.

Most states have dismissed claims that sex-offender registration requirements are cruel and unusual punishment because the laws are not considered punitive but instead are viewed as remedial. However, Justice Lanzinger pointed out, the Ohio Supreme Court held in State v. Williams (2011) that the registration and reporting mandates are punitive measures.

Court Rejects Eighth Amendment Claim
In deciding whether the requirements violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the Court first explained that Blankenship acknowledged he could not argue that a national consensus exists against registration laws for sex offenders. Therefore, the Court moved on to consider Blankenship’s level of responsibility, the severity of his punishment, and reasons for these laws.

Justice Lanzinger noted that Blankenship had sex with M.H. twice while knowing that she was a juvenile. He also violated a court order by contacting her while his case was pending. The facts show he was culpable for his actions, Justice Lanzinger concluded.

As far as his punishment, Blankenship could have been sentenced up to 18 months in prison, but instead he was placed on community control, given a six-month sentence, and served 12 days.

And, Justice Lanzinger pointed out, M.H.’s consent does not mean Blankenship’s punishment was too severe. “[W]e cannot say that the state has no interest in protecting minors who may otherwise ‘consent’ to sexual activity,” she wrote. “Consent plays no role and is not a viable defense in determining whether a person has violated R.C. 2907.04. A child under 16 is simply not legally capable of consent to sexual conduct with an adult.”

She explained that the requirements for sex offenders are designed to protect the community. While acknowledging that critics argue the laws do not accomplish that purpose, supporters contend that the measures are useful in monitoring and preventing repeat offenses. The Court reasoned that the registration and notification requirements are not so unjustified as to be a punishment that is cruel and unusual.

Requirements Also Do Not Violate Ohio Constitution
Under Ohio’s parallel provision protecting against cruel and unusual punishment, the Court must decide whether a punishment “would be considered shocking to any reasonable person” or “so greatly disproportionate to the offense as to shock the sense of justice of the community,” Justice Lanzinger wrote, citing the Court’s case law.

“Blankenship has not overcome the hurdle of showing that his punishment is cruel or unusual,” she determined. “The concerns that led us to conclude that the requirement of lifetime registration for certain juvenile offenders violated Ohio’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in In re C.P. [(2012)] are largely absent when dealing with an adult who engaged in unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.”

In addition, Justice Lanzinger noted, the General Assembly and all other states have implemented some type of sex-offender registration and notification requirements. As the national norm, “[the provisions] cannot be said to be shocking to the sense of justice of the community,” she reasoned.
“They do not meet the high burden of being so extreme as to be grossly disproportionate to the crime or shocking to a reasonable person.”

Justices’ Votes
Joining the lead opinion were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Judith L. French. Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Sharon L. Kennedy concurred only with the Court’s judgment in an opinion written by Justice O’Donnell.

Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill both dissented in separate opinions.

Concurring Opinion
Justice O’Donnell agreed that Blankenship’s registration and notification requirements did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Contrary to the lead opinion, though, Justice O’Donnell concluded that the provisions are not punishment for a crime.

Earlier Ohio Supreme Court opinions reviewing a prior sex-offender registration statute determined the registration provisions were not punishment, and that law was not significantly different from the current sex-offender statute, Justice O’Donnell explained. In addition, he pointed out, federal circuit courts have ruled that the federal registration and notification mandates are not punitive, and that is significant because the state legislature relied on those federal statutes in enacting Ohio’s sex-offender registration and notification laws. Justice O’Donnell urged the Court to overrule its decisions in Williams and C.P., which declared the registration and notification requirements to be punitive.

“Until the decisions in Williams and C.P., Ohio recognized registration as a civil requirement, not punitive or criminal in nature,” Justice O’Donnell wrote. “Instead of diametrically changing Ohio law, we should follow our precedent and established federal law and hold that classifying Blankenship as a Tier II sex offender does not punish him for an offense and therefore cannot violate the United States Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Sex offender registration is not punishment, and therefore we need not decide whether classifying Blankenship as a Tier II sex offender with a duty to report every 180 days for 25 years is proportionate to his offense of having consensual sex with a minor,” he concluded. He further clarified that “[q]uestions regarding whether this registration duty is necessary and appropriate in these circumstances do not involve the Eighth Amendment, but rather, these are matters of policy that are the province of the General Assembly, the arbiter of public policy in Ohio.” 

Dissenting Opinion
Justice Pfeifer, on the other hand, sees Blankenship’s circumstances as relevant for constitutional reasons but not for the statutory analysis. Blankenship’s punishment must be proportional to his crime to survive an Eighth Amendment challenge, Justice Pfeifer explained. He noted that under the current law an offender released from prison after 12 days has the same reporting requirements as one who serves an 18-month sentence, and those unlikely to reoffend are subject to the same reporting mandates as those more likely to repeat the crimes. Proportionality is lacking in this approach and is cruel and unusual as applied to Blankenship, Justice Pfeifer reasoned.

The justice also would have ruled that the registration and reporting law violates Blankenship’s constitutional rights under Ohio’s standard.

“Today we should declare that in certain circumstances, the 25-year reporting requirements are onerous enough to constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “I do not believe that the registration and address-verification requirements at issue in this case are cruel and unusual with respect to all Tier II sex offenders. But as applied to Blankenship, who was deemed to warrant a prison sentence of only 12 days, who has a low risk of reoffending, and who possesses none of the characteristics of a sex offender, the requirement to register and verify his address every six months for the next 25 years ‘would be considered shocking to any reasonable person.’”

He would have reversed the appellate court’s judgment.

Additional Dissent
In his dissent, Justice O’Neill also concluded that Blankenship’s registration and notification requirements are consistent with the statute, but are barred constitutionally because they constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Justice O’Neill protested the lack of judicial discretion in cases and the “one-size-fits-all mentality that increasingly dictates criminal sentencing in Ohio.”

“When sex offenders present a real threat to the public, the law indeed deters further crime, punishes the offender, and provides information the public can use to protect itself from offenders of the worst sort,” he wrote. “However, this is not one of those cases. And yet this trial court was required to impose the penalty as prescribed.”

He added that the reporting mandates will limit Blankenship’s job prospects and label him as a “pariah” for the long period of 25 years even though a psychologist found Blankenship suffered from no mental disorders and was unlikely to reoffend. Justice O’Neill concluded that Blankenship’s punishment was “grossly disproportionate” to his crime.

2014-0363. State v. Blankenship, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-4624.

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