Civil rights organization says it’s unconstitutional to label people for life without individual review
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DETROIT – Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU), on behalf of 10 people who all previously won federal court rulings that Michigan’s Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA) is unconstitutional, filed a federal class action lawsuit against state officials over the latest version of the law. It is the fourth federal lawsuit the civil rights organization has filed challenging SORA in the past decade. The federal courts and the Michigan Supreme Court have repeatedly ruled that the earlier iteration of SORA was unconstitutional.
Today’s lawsuit, Does v. Whitmer, or Does III, filed in U.S. District Court, argues that the new SORA statute, which went into effect in 2021, is also unconstitutional. Specifically, SORA fails to provide for individual review or an opportunity for removal, forcing tens of thousands of people, including people who didn’t even commit a sex offense, to be branded as sex offenders and subjected to extensive, and in most cases life-long restrictions, without any consideration of their individual circumstances, which is a violation of their due process and equal protection rights. The 193-page complaint also argues that SORA imposes unconstitutional retroactive punishment, including by retroactively extending the registration terms of thousands of people to life.
Michigan has one of the largest registries in the country; there are approximately 45,000 Michigan registrants, and almost 10,000 more who live out of state.
“For nearly a decade, we have been fighting to put an end to an ineffective, bloated and unconstitutional registry that not only fails to protect survivors, but in fact makes families and communities less safe,” said Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney. “The latest version of SORA is more of the same, and still puts tens of thousands of people on this list automatically without any consideration of their individual circumstances. What we’re asking for is very simple: consider the facts in each case before someone is tarred as a sex offender for life. Dying shouldn’t be the only way a person can get off the registry.”
Expert reports filed with the case explain that Michigan’s registry is counter-productive: because registration makes it more difficult for people to find housing, employment and family support — the key factors in preventing recidivism — the registry makes the public less safe.
The following are brief summaries of a few plaintiffs profiled in today’s lawsuit, who are on the registry for life:
- John Doe A: Mr. Doe A was never accused, charged or convicted of a sex offense. Rather, he pled guilty to armed robbery and weapons charges for robbing his former employer (a McDonald’s) after he thought he was unjustly fired. He also pled no contest to kidnapping for forcing the manager and her teenaged son into the building to open a safe. After serving 19 years in prison, Mr. Doe A was paroled in 2009. He's since worked as a vocational coach for special-needs adults and now runs an asbestos abatement business. Even though he never committed a sex crime, he is required to register as a sex offender for life because of the kidnapping. There is no mechanism in SORA to remove Mr. Doe A from the registry other than for him to die.
- Mary Roe: At age 19, when Ms. Mary Roe was addicted to drugs and homeless, she had sex with a 14-year-old who associated with her group of homeless teens and was convicted of third degree criminal sexual conduct. She served two-and-a-half years in prison, where she straightened herself out. Since her release she has earned a Masters Degree in Counseling, married, and never faced further charges of any kind. She is now a therapist, helping others, including survivors of sexual assault and abusive relationships. She was due to come off SORA at age 45, but the 2011 SORA amendments retroactively extended her time on the registry from 25 years to life. There is no mechanism in SORA to remove Ms. Mary Roe from the registry unless she dies.
- John Doe C: When 23 years old, Mr. Doe C had sex with a girl he met at an 18 and older club. He thought she was an adult, but she’d used a fake ID to get in and was actually 15. Mr. Doe C was convicted of third degree criminal sexual conduct, and initially put on the registry for 25 years until age 49. However, the 2011 SORA amendments retroactively extended his registration to life. Mr. Doe C is now married to the woman he met at the club, and they have three children together. There is no mechanism to remove him from the registry unless he dies.
Experts in the case determined that the plaintiffs are no more likely to commit a sex offense than people who aren’t registered, and that there are likely thousands of other registrants whose risk of offending is likewise indistinguishable from non-registrants.
“Michigan’s registry is one of the largest in the country, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars annually, and it has no demonstrable public safety benefit for anyone,” said Paul Reingold, retired University of Michigan clinical law professor and an ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney on the case. “Registries don’t work because they sabotage people’s efforts to successfully reenter society, make it harder for victims to report abuse, impose an impossible burden on law enforcement, and divert resources from prevention programs. The research is clear: registries undermine public safety and needlessly waste taxpayer money.”
Lawmakers amended the law in response to the repeated court rulings that SORA is unconstitutional, but made only minor changes. Today’s suit alleges that the new law, which went into effect in 2021, did little to fix Michigan’s registry and left core constitutional defects in place. The ACLU is asking the court to prohibit the law from being applied retroactively without individual review, to ensure that everyone on the registry who meets criteria demonstrating rehabilitation have an opportunity to seek removal from the registry, and to stop sex offender registration for people who didn’t commit sex crimes.
In addition to Ms. Aukerman and Mr. Reingold, the plaintiffs in the case are represented by attorneys Dan Korobkin and Rohit Rajan at the ACLU, and cooperating attorney Roshna Bala Keen of Loevy & Loevy.
Comprehensive background, including basic facts, legislative history and legal challenges to SORA, are at: https://www.aclumich.org/en/sora