Kansas Supreme Court rules sex offender registry not cruel

In this Monday, Dec. 14, 2015 file photo, Kansas Supreme Court Justices prepare to hear arguments during a session in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

? Forcing sex offenders who’ve been released to spend the rest of their life on the state sex offender registry does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a divided Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The decision is tied to the case of Henry Petersen-Beard, who was convicted as a 19-year-old of raping a 13-year-old girl. He had challenged the lifetime sex offender registry requirement as unconstitutional under the Kansas Bill of Rights and the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The state’s highest court took up the issue of whether the registry in the today’s age of the Internet and social media has become a form of public shaming. In Kansas, the law requires any sex offender’s driver’s license to have an “RO” designation and quarterly registration showing where the offender works or attends school and lives.

In an opinion written by Judge Caleb Stegall, the court said the registration requirement was not an unconstitutional form of punishment, but rather a civil regulatory scheme that aims to protect the public.

Three other cases also released Friday but decided before Stegall joined the bench found the registry requirement indeed constituted a cruel and unusual punishment and found that therefore a 2011 amendment to the law couldn’t be applied retroactively in violation of the “Ex Post Facto Clause” of the U.S. Constitution.

However, the rulings in those three cases now apply only to those three defendants only because the fourth decision essentially overruled the court’s findings over whether the registry constituted punishment.

Judge Lee Johnson explained in his dissenting opinion the “unusual circumstance” of the three “Ex Post Facto” cases being released on the same day as the separate opinion that purports to overrule them.

At the time the three cases were heard, the vacancy was filled by a temporarily assigned judge to hear the case. The majority who heard those cases left intact the July 1, 2011, amendments to the registry law for crimes committed after that date, but said the registry requirement constituted a punishment that could not be applied retroactively to other defendants.

So when the majority of the court later determined to overrule that holding for future litigants, the court ordered the release of those cases to be delayed until the opinion in the Peterson-Beard case was ready to be filed, Johnson said.

The Kansas Attorney General’s Office said in an emailed statement that it will “continue to study today’s peculiar group” of decisions.

“The Court in part issued three decisions and then immediately overruled them,” Attorney General Derek Schmidt said. “In the coming days, we will endeavor to discern what the Court actually has done and will assess all options for next steps.”

Attorney Christopher Joseph, who had challenged the registry law for a registered offender identified only in court papers as “John Doe,” said the decision forever relieves his client of his obligation to register under the Kansas Offender Registry Act, but that other individuals in that position will not get the same treatment.

“This is an area of law that is evolving,” Joseph said in an email. “We took one step forward with the Doe decision, and one step back with the Peterson-Beard decision.”

Joseph said he “has little doubt” that courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, will ultimately agree that offender registration laws are punitive.