Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Expresses Concern About the Sex Offender Registry Board’s Guidelines

In an important decision delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court expressed concern about the guidelines used by the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) in classifying sex offenders.  The name of the case is John Doe, Sex Offender Registry Board No. 68549 v. Sex Offender Registry Board.

For three years in the mid-1980s, the defendant sexually assaulted two of his cousins.  Many years later, his cousins disclosed the abuse and in 2003 the defendant pleaded guilty to several sex crimes, including rape.  As a result of his guilty pleas, the defendant was required to register as a sex offender.

SORB classifies sex offenders into levels of dangerousness, from level one (the least dangerous) to level three (the most dangerous).  There are different consequences that result from the classifications.  Information about level one offenders is not available to the public.  Level two and level three offenders have their information entered into a publicly-accessible Internet database, and local police departments actively disseminate information about level three offenders to people who are likely to come into contact with them.  If a sex offender establishes that he or she is not likely to commit another sex crime or pose a danger to the public, SORB has the power to excuse that individual from further registration obligations.  Given the serious collateral consequences that result from having to register as a sex offender, SORB’s classification decisions are often appealed, first to superior court judges and then to appellate courts.  That’s what happened in this case.

The defendant was initially classified as a level two offender, but later re-classified as a level one offender.  He appealed, arguing that he should not have to register at all.  The SJC ultimately ruled that SORB’s classification of the defendant, which was upheld by a superior court judge, was supported by the facts of the case.

The interesting part of today’s decision was the Court’s consideration of whether SORB’s guidelines appropriately consider a defendant’s age in its classification process.  The defendant argued that SORB’s guidelines were enacted before the most recent scientific studies that concern adolescent brains and adolescent behavior.  His position was that because his crimes were committed as a juvenile and he has not committed any sex crimes as an adult, he does not pose a danger to society.  The SJC said that it is incumbent upon SORB to update its guidelines at reasonable intervals in order to integrate current scientific knowledge into it decisions.

The Court pointed out that current guidelines compel SORB to consider whether a sex offender was a juvenile at the time of the crime.  However, the Court said there is an outstanding question of whether the manner in which the guidelines differentiate between juveniles and adults is sufficient in view of the most recent scientific studies.  The Court pointed out that the United State Supreme Court has described three significant differences between adults and juveniles: (1) juveniles have a lack of maturity that leads to recklessness and impulsivity; (2) juveniles are more vulnerable to negative influences; and (3) a juvenile’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s.  The SJC suggested that SORB needs to reviews its regulations to determine whether an update is necessary.

Sex offender registration is probably the worst collateral consequence to a criminal conviction.  It is crucial that anyone charged with a sex crime consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.