PA Superior Court Finds Sexually Violent Predator Classification Unconstitutional

More Changes for Pennsylvania's Unconstitutional Megan's Law Statute

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Butler, finding that Pennsylvania's system of classifying certain sex offenders as Sexually Violent Predators is unconstitutional. The Court held that that 42 Pa C.S.A. § 9799.24(e)(3), the section of the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA) that deals with designating an individual as a Sexually Violent Predators (“SVP”), is unconstitutional. This decision could impact thousands of individuals throughout Pennsylvania. Further, this is yet another case where an appellate court has found a section of the SORNA statute unconstitutional. If you are charged with a SORNA offense, it is imperative that you contact an attorney who is familiar with this rapidly evolving area of law.

Commonwealth v. Butler 

In Butler, the defendant was a 21-year-old man who repeatedly engaged in sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. In September of 2014, Butler was charged with statutory sexual assault, criminal use of a communication facility, manufacturing child pornography, and corruption of minors. In July of 2016, he pleaded guilty to statutory sexual assault and corruption of minors. As a result of pleading guilty to corruption of minors, Pennsylvania law required that he undergo an assessment by the Sexual Offender Assessment Board (“SOAB”) to determine whether or not he fit the classification as an SVP. § 9799.24(a) of SORNA requires that every defendant who is convicted of a sex offense undergo the SOAB evaluation before sentencing for a SORNA offense. The SOAB concluded that Butler was a Sexually Violent Predator, leading to a hearing before the trial judge on the issue. After the SVP hearing, the trial judge found that the Commonwealth met its burden, and the judge classified Butler as a Sexually Violent Predator. Butler also received a sentence of 12 to 30 months of incarceration and 90 months of probation. He appealed. 

How Does Someone Get Labeled AN SVP?

As stated above, after a conviction for a SORNA offense an individual must be assessed the SOAB to determine whether they meet the classification as an SVP. According to § 9799.12 of the SORNA, an individual who is an SVP is a person with “a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the individual likely to engage in predatory sexually violent offenses.” In making its assessment, the SOAB will look at 15 factors to determine whether someone meets the classification as an SVP. § 9799.24 lists factors that the SOAB will consider including: the specific facts of the underlying case, the age of the defendant, the age of the complainant, the prior criminal record of the defendant, drug use, whether the defendant has any mental health illnesses. 

If the SOAB makes its determination that an individual meets the requirements for SVP classification, the District Attorney must then file a praecipe to have a hearing before a judge to determine whether or not the defendant should be labeled an SVP. Notably, the Commonwealth must meet this burden by clear and convincing evidence. This is a lesser standard than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard which is required to convict someone of a criminal offense. Further, a defendant does not have the right to have a jury determine whether the defendant is an SVP.

At the SVP hearing, the Commonwealth will present its case as to why the court should find the defendant an SVP. Typically, this involves testimony from the SOAB evaluator who assessed the defendant. The defendant would have the opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses the Commonwealth presents, and the defendant may also present evidence as to why he or she does not meet the characteristics of an SVP. For example, a defendant may call an expert witness to testify that based on an independent assessment of the relevant facts, it is their expert opinion that the defendant is not an SVP. After all the evidence is presented, the statute permits the judge to make a determination, using the clear and convincing evidence standard, as to whether or not the Commonwealth proved that the defendant is a Sexually Violent Predator.  

It is important to note that the SVP procedure can result in even defendants who were convicted of relatively minor sex offenses like misdemeanor Indecent Assault being laced as SVPs. In most cases, Indecent Assault results in a defendant being required to register as a Tier I Sex Offender. Tier I Sex Offenders face the fewest restrictions in terms of registration requirements and only have to register for fifteen years. However, the SVP procedure can result in someone who would normally be a Tier I Sex Offender being required to register for life subject to the most severe restrictions as a Sexually Violent Predator. 

What Are the Consequences of Being Labeled an SVP?

If a court finds that an individual is an SVP, there are several consequences. First, the defendant must register for life. Further, the victim of the underlying offense must be notified of where the defendant lives and works; the community also receives notification about where the individual lives, works, eats, attends school, spends his or her leisurely time; and the person is subjected to lifetime counseling. As such, this designation carries serious collateral consequences beyond just a period of incarceration or probation. 

For a considerable period of time, Pennsylvania courts held that these registration requirements were civil, rather than punitive in nature. However, this all changed with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Commonwealth v. Muniz, 164 A.3d 1189 (Pa. 2017).   

The Pennsylvania Superior Court Finds § 9799.24 Unconstitutional   

In Muniz, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the SORNA registration requirements were punitive and not civil. This is significant because the United States Supreme Court in Alleyne v. United States held that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum for a sentence must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, the state must prove every element of the offense (including facts that increase a sentence) beyond a reasonable doubt.    

In Butler, had there been no SVP hearing, appellant would have had to register for 15 years.  However, because he was classified as an SVP, he had to register for life. Thus, the Butler Court held that this punishment was illegal because the court did not make its determination based on the beyond a reasonable doubt standard and because the statute allows the judge to make the determination instead of giving the defendant the right to a jury. 

The Pennsylvania Superior Court did not limit its ruling to Butler's specific case. Instead, it halted all future SVP hearings. The Court reasoned that because § 9799.24 is inherently flawed, trial courts are no longer allowed to hold SVP hearings until the General Assembly revises the statute to make it compliant with both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions.

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Sex Crimes and SORNA Offenses

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

SORNA cases can be very complicated, and there is no question that the consequences are dramatic. If you are charged with a SORNA offense, you need an attorney who has the knowledge and expertise to defend your case. Likewise, if you are improperly classified under the SORNA statute, you need an attorney who can help you fix your registration tier. It is not clear whether the Commonwealth will appeal the decision in Butler or whether defendants who have already been classified as SVPs will be required to file a PCRA Petition within sixty days of the decision. Thus, it is important to act quickly in order to avoid waiving any rights to re-classification. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client who is under investigation or facing active criminal charges, and we offer a $100 Megan's Law/SORNA consultation on whether we may be able to help you change your registration tier. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.