Retroactive Application Of Sex Offender Registration Act Violated Defendant’s Due Process Rights

by: Matt Newburg

04/04/2018 09:00 AM EST

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) was unconstitutionally applied to a defendant who, at 19 years old, had pleaded guilty to sex offense under a state diversionary program.


The Supreme Court, in People v Temelkoski (Docket No. 150643), ordered that the Court of Appeals decision in the case be reversed, thereby reinstating the Wayne County Circuit Court ruling.

In so doing, the Supreme Court emphasized that, when prosecuting crimes, the state must adhere to the promises it makes to defendants who waive their right to a jury trial and plead guilty to a criminal offense under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (HYTA).

Plea Deal

In 1994, the defendant pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct. Because he was 19 years old at the time, the defendant was subject to HYTA. HYTA allows the assignment of certain young offenders to “youthful trainee status” and ultimately lets them have their cases dismissed and their records sealed. At the time the defendant pleaded guilty, HYTA provided that the assignment of a person to youthful trainee status was not a conviction.

About a year after the defendant’s guilty plea, SORA went into effect and was retroactively applied. As a result of this retroactive application, SORA defined the defendant’s youthful trainee adjudication as a “conviction,” which required him to register as a sex offender for 25 years. Then in 1997, when the defendant completed his HYTA youthful trainee program, his case was dismissed with prejudice and his record was sealed. However, the defendant remained a registered sex offender under SORA. As the years passed, SORA was amended and more restrictions kept being imposed on the defendant, including lifetime sex offender registration. In 2014, SORA was amended to exclude successfully discharged youthful trainees, like the defendant, from sex offender registration requirements. However, the SORA amendment was not made retroactive and, as a result, the defendant remained on the sex offender registry.

The defendant subsequently filed a motion in Wayne County Circuit Court, requesting that he be removed from the sex offender registry. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, finding that SORA constituted punishment and was an ex post facto law as applied to the defendant.

On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed (Docket No. 313670), finding that SORA did not impose a punishment on the defendant. “SORA has not been regarded in our history and traditions as punishment, it does not impose affirmative disabilities or restraints, it does not promote the traditional aims of punishment, and it has a rational connection to a nonpunitive purpose and is not excessive with respect to this purpose,” the Court said. “Accordingly, as applied to defendant, SORA does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause or amount to cruel or unusual punishment because it does not impose punishment.”

Due Process Violation

Reversing the Court of Appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court found that retroactively applying SORA to the defendant violated his right to due process under both the Michigan Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

In its analysis, the Supreme Court looked to the defendant’s reasonable expectations under his plea agreement. Relying on Santobello v New York, 404 US 257 (1971), the Court explained that when a plea is based on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, the promise “must be fulfilled.” Pursuant to Santobello, the Court said the defendant had reasonably relied on the HYTA adjudication and the “express promise” that when he successfully completed his youthful trainee requirements, he would not have a conviction on his record.

The Supreme Court further pointed out the defendant pleaded guilty to the primary charge against him, and that he did so after being found eligible for HYTA status. “Because defendant pleaded guilty on the basis of the inducement provided in HYTA …, was assigned to HYTA training by the trial judge, and successfully completed his HYTA training, retroactive application of SORA deprived defendant of the benefits under HYTA to which he was entitled and therefore violated his constitutional right to due process,” the Court wrote.

Because the Supreme Court decided Temelkoski on due process grounds, the justices did not address the unconstitutional punishment argument that was presented. Despite this, the Court, in dicta, indicated how it might decide the issue when it said: “It is undisputed that registration under SORA constitutes a civil disability.”

Justice Kurtis T. Wilder dissented from the Supreme Court’s order, saying he would have remanded the matter for more factual development. “In my view, the record before us is insufficient to conclude, at this stage, that a violation of defendant’s due process rights has occurred,” he wrote, joined by Justice Brian K. Zahra.