DETROIT (Friday, Feb. 14, 2020) – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) applauds today’s decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland to provide relief for registrants on the Michigan Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA). In today’s ruling, Judge Cleland ordered that if the legislature does not bring the law into compliance with constitutional requirements, the state will no longer be able to enforce the law against pre-2011 registrants.
“Unless and until decisive action is taken by the Michigan legislature, no provisions of SORA may be enforced against [pre-2011 registrants] ex post facto subclasses,” Judge Cleland wrote.
Today’s decision follows several prior rulings: two 2015 rulings by Judge Cleland which found many parts of SORA unconstitutional and a 2016 ruling by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that it is unconstitutional to impose new severe restrictions on people who have past convictions. When the state continued to enforce the law despite the court rulings, the ACLU, with the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program and the Oliver Law Group, brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of Michigan’s registrants arguing that the state had to follow the earlier rulings.
“Today’s decision is a win for the public safety of Michigan communities,” said Miriam Aukerman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. “The registry is an ineffective and bloated system that makes Michigan communities less safe by making it more difficult for survivors to report abuse, sabotaging people’s efforts to reenter society, and wasting scarce police resources on hyper-technicalities. Today’s decision means that lawmakers must finally do their jobs and pass evidence-based laws that better serve everyone. Michigan families deserve true reform that prioritizes public safety and prevention, not a failed registry.”
In May 2019, Judge Cleland ruled that significant portions of SORA cannot be applied to pre-2011 registrants, but deferred further relief to give the legislature time to bring SORA into compliance with the constitution. The Michigan legislature has not passed a new, constitutional SORA law.
Judge Cleland wrote: “Making these determinations invites pure speculation on the part of the court and could result in a system in which different versions of SORA apply to different classes of registrants, which would create an administrative nightmare for law enforcement and registrants alike.”
Under today’s ruling, registrants whose offenses pre-date April 12, 2011 will be removed from the registry unless the legislature rewrites the law before judgment is entered in the case. The parties must provide a proposed judgment by March 13 and the judgment will include a 60-day period before entry.
“We urge the Michigan Legislature to focus on what actually works to reduce sexual offending,” said Paul Reingold, law professor at the University of Michigan and co-counsel on the case. “The legislature will now need to overhaul the SORA law, and can do so is a way that is rooted in research and prioritizes prevention, support for survivors, and the successful re-entry of those who have already served time. The legislature has a responsibility to act quickly in order to provide relief to the 44,000 registrants who continue to be unfairly punished by these unconstitutional laws.”
In addition to barring retroactive enforcement of the law against pre-2011 registrants, Judge Cleland’s decision finds that SORA’s exclusion zones, which bar registrants from living, working or spending time in areas around schools, are unconstitutionally vague for all registrants because they cannot determine where they can and cannot be. The decision also protects registrants from being prosecuted for accidentally violating SORA’s complicated, technical requirements, and bars enforcement of certain unclear reporting requirements.
Judge Cleland wrote: “Without the 2011 amendments, SORA registrants and law enforcement officials have no guidance for who must register, what events must be reported, where registrants must report, how often registrants must report, or when registrants become eligible for removal from the registry. Michigan law makes clear that SORA cannot be enforced given such glaring omissions.”
A legislative workgroup met in the summer of 2019 to discuss possible SORA revisions, and the American Law Institute, the nation’s leading independent organization that drafts model legislation, also recently released a draft registry law.
Case background and corresponding documents are at: