SORNA Update: PA Superior Court Finds Trial Court Must Reduce Megan’s Law Tier of Registrants Who Had Tiers Retroactively Increased

 Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has issued an incredibly important decision for Megan’s Law registrants who found their registration requirements and terms increased by Pennsylvania’s SORNA law. In Commonwealth v. Fernandez, the Court held that trial courts have the jurisdiction to and should reduce Megan’s Law registrants’ registration tiers to the tier that was in effect at the time of the plea. This means that if you initially pleaded guilty to or were found guilty of a Tier I offense for a registration period of ten years and later learned that you would have to register as a Tier III offender for life, you may be able to obtain relief by filing a Petition in the Court of Common Pleas which heard your case. This decision is a no brainer – obviously, the Pennsylvania State Police should not be able to retroactively increase the punishment associated with a conviction. However, until this decision, it was unclear how someone affected by the Supreme Court’s decision in Muniz which found that SORNA could not be applied retroactively could obtain relief or if Muniz even applied retroactively.   

Fernandez is the decision of an en banc panel of the Superior Court, meaning it is binding on all other panels unless reversed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In Fernandez, nineteen Megan’s Law registrants filed identical Petitions to Enforce the Plea Agreement or for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia. Each of the defendants had pleaded guilty to charges involving sexual offenses prior to the enactment of Pennsylvania SORNA’s statute on December 20, 2012. Under the previous version of Megan’s Law, two of the defendants pleaded guilty to crimes which did not require sex offender registration at all, and the remaining defendants had to register as Tier I offenders for ten years.

These cases were all unrelated, but there were similarities in terms of the plea bargains. In exchange for the guilty pleas, the Commonwealth withdrew various other charges which would have triggered lengthier periods of Megan’s Law Registration. At sentencing, each defendant was informed of whether they would have to register, and if so, for how long. All nineteen defendants subsequently violated their probation and were sentenced either to new periods of probation or incarceration.

When they were re-sentenced, the defendants were told that the new SORNA law increased their registration requirements – meaning some were now required to register for 15 years, some for 25 years, and some for life. SORNA drastically increased the punishments and Megan’s Law consequences for many sex offenses, converting crimes that did not require registration such as Indecent Assault (M2) into Megan’s Law crimes and increasing the term of registration for many offenders. It even required registration for some crimes which did not involve sex acts. 

Because each of these defendants had pleaded guilty in Philadelphia, they filed the petitions in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Each defendant challenged the retroactivity of SORNA to their cases and argued that it violated the plea deals that each had made with the Commonwealth. The trial court denied the petitions, finding that the defendants were not entitled to specific performance of the negotiated plea agreements because the defendants had violated the terms of the agreements by violating their probation. The defendants all appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

The Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court. It found that the required periods of Megan’s Law registration were an implied part of the negotiations in each case. Further, the law on the enforcement of plea deals is well-settled. Although a plea agreement occurs as part of a criminal case, it remains contractual in nature and therefore must be analyzed under contract-law standards.

In evaluating whether a plea deal has been breached, the court must look at what the parties to the deal reasonably understood to be the terms of the agreement. When the Commonwealth makes a promise as part of a plea deal, the Commonwealth must live up to that promise. Here, the Commonwealth promised certain terms of registration in exchange for the guilty plea. Therefore, regardless of whether the defendants violated the plea deals by violating their probation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Muniz prohibits the retroactive application of SORNA. Likewise, the legislature responded to Muniz by amending the SORNA statute to clarify that the previous registration terms which were in effect at the time of the offenses should again apply. Therefore, the Superior Court held that the defendants should be subject to the original periods of sexual offender registration and conditions imposed at the time of the plea bargains, if applicable.

This decision is incredibly helpful to those who have had their Megan’s Law Registration tiers retroactively increased. It also establishes that trial courts have the jurisdiction to re-classify offenders following Muniz. Previously, it was unclear whether defendants seeking relief would be barred by the jurisdictional and time-limit requirements of the Post-Conviction Relief Act and when those time limits would begin to run. The Superior Court here concluded that courts always retain the power to correct an illegal sentence. Because the Supreme Court found that SORNA is punitive and part of a criminal sentence, the trial courts retain the power to correct an improper order to register as a sex offender because the registration is part of the criminal sentence.

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