WASHINGTON (CN) - Sex offenders who are unconditionally released from prison must register in-state address changes, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Anthony Kebodeaux had consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was a 21-year-old member of the U.S. military.
He was sentenced to three months in prison in 1999 for the crime, and the government then cut all ties with him after he served the sentence.
But when Kebodeaux moved from San Antonio, Texas, to El Paso, he failed to update his state sex offender registration within three days. Federal prosecutors then charged him with violating the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA.
This 2006 law states that a sex offender must register in each jurisdiction where he lives, works and studies. Offenders are also required to keep their registration current, but Kebodeaux argued that the government applied SORNA's registration requirements to him unconstitutionally because the government had unconditionally released him before SORNA became law.
Kebodeaux was eventually convicted and sentenced to one year and one day in prison.
The full 5th Circuit nevertheless reversed
the conviction in 2012, however, rejecting the government's claims that its power to criminalize sex offenses includes the authority to regulate movement even after an expired sentence and unconditional release.
Dissenting judges argued, however, that pre-SORNNA sex-offender registry laws would have still applied to Kebodeaux.
The Supreme Court reversed Monday after focusing on the "critical assumption that Kebodeaux's release was 'unconditional.'"
"To the contrary, the solicitor general, tracing through a complex set of statutory cross-references, has pointed out that at the time of his offense and conviction Kebodeaux was subject to the federal Wetterling Act, an act that imposed upon him registration requirements very similar to those that SORNA later mandated," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for a five-member majority.
With this in mind, the necessary and proper clause of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to enact SORNA's registration requirements and apply them to a federal offender who had completed his sentence prior to the time of SORNA's enactment, according to the ruling.
Chief Justice John Roberts said he concurred in judgment only because he said the majority unnecessarily discussed "the general public safety benefits of the registration requirement."
Justice Samuel Alito likewise concurred only in judgment.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented based on his finding that SORNA "usurps the general police power vested in the states."
"Because SORNA's registration requirements are unconstitutional as applied to Kebodeaux, I respectfully dissent," Thomas wrote.
Justice Antonin Scalia joined Thomas in this point, but objected to a section of that dissent that said "what is necessary and proper to enforce a statute validly enacted pursuant to an enumerated power is not itself necessary and proper to the execution of an enumerated power."
In a separate dissent, Scalia noted his belief "that if 'Congress has the authority' to act, then it also '"possesses every power needed"' to make that action '"effective."' If I thought that SORNA's registration requirement were '"reasonably adapted,"' to carrying into execution some other, valid enactment, I would sustain it.
"But it is not. The lynchpin of the court's reasoning is that Kebodeaux was 'subject to a federal registration requirement' - the Wetterling Act - at the time of his offense, and so the necessary and proper clause 'authorized Congress to modify the requirement as in SORNA and to apply the modified requirement to Kebodeaux.' That does not establish, however, that the Wetterling Act's registration requirement was itself a valid exercise of any federal power, or that SORNA is designed to carry the Wetterling Act into execution. The former proposition is dubious, the latter obviously untrue.