Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Change in Sex Offender Law Leads to Appeals

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Change in Sex Offender Law Leads to Appeals

Article excerpt

In September 2011, Lawrence Jones, then 26, was arrested for having a relationship with a 15-year-old girl.

Six months later, he agreed to plead no contest to misdemeanor counts of indecent assault and corruption of minors, while the prosecution dropped felony statutory sexual assault.

Under the terms of the plea, Mr. Jones would serve probation set by the court -- Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen gave him two years -- and meet a number of special conditions, including mental health treatment designed for sex offenders, and staying away from minors.

Nowhere in the agreement or at his March 5, 2012, plea hearing was there ever any mention of having to register as a sex offender under Megan's Law.

In fact, none of the charges that Mr. Jones faced, including the original statutory sexual assault, fell under the state law requiring a defendant to register in a publicly accessible database.

So months later, when Mr. Jones was notified by the Pennsylvania State Police to comply with the new Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which took effect in December 2012, Mr. Jones was mad.

He filed an immediate appeal with Judge Machen, asking him to enforce the original plea agreement. When that was rejected, he filed a petition with the state Superior Court.

"I would not have pled [no contest] if I had been told that this was a possibility," he wrote. "I am not guilty and would have gone to trial. I am not receiving the benefit of the [plea] bargain."

Mr. Jones, who faced the prospect of a 25-year registration period, raised two issues in his appeal: that he cannot be required to register under a statute not in effect at the time of the plea; and that the prosecution committed a breach of contract by violating the terms of his plea agreement.

Last month the Superior Court, in a 2-1 decision, ruled in Mr. Jones' favor based on his contract argument. It did not consider the ex post facto claim.

"Neither party to the negotiated plea could have anticipated the imposition of more severe sanctions ... than stated on ... the record," wrote Superior Court Judge David Wecht. "Based upon this agreement, Jones sacrificed his fundamental constitutional rights [to a jury trial.] He cannot fairly be denied the benefit of his bargain."

But the questions around the new registration requirements are far from settled. In Allegheny County, alone, the district attorney's office has filed 31 answers to similar petitions involving sex offender registration cases and has said that it will appeal the decision in the Jones case.

Across the state, there are likely dozens, if not hundreds more working their way through the Pennsylvania courts system.

More than that, the issue remains in question nationally, as well.

What the law says

The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act falls under the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which marked the 25th anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of the 6-year-old.

The law expanded the number of offenses that fall under registration requirements, and also created a federal sex offender registry. It also required all states to adopt its provisions or face the possibility of losing grant funding.

In Pennsylvania, the state version of the act became effective on Dec. 20, 2012, replacing what was known as Megan's Law.

The registration requirements applied to anyone who at the effective date was currently serving a sentence for a covered sex offense -- meaning that if a subject was in prison, on probation or parole, he or she must register.

It applied even if, as in Mr. Jones' case, the conviction offense did not require registration.

David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said his group had a lot of discussion about the issues that would likely arise in the months leading up to the effective date for the state act. …

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