SUNBURY — The number of sex offenders on the state’s Megan’s Law sex offender registry could drop as the result of a July ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, three Valley district attorneys and the Pennsylvania State Police say.
The Supreme Court ruled that 2012 changes to the registry expanding and strengthening reporting rules under the state’s Megan’s Law could not be applied retroactively. The ruling came out of the case of a Cumberland County man who was convicted of two counts of indecent assault of a 12-year-old girl in 2007.
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The ruling could have an impact on currently registered sex offenders being taken off the Megan’s Law registration list. Snyder County District Attorney Mike Piecuch said. He said the number of offenders on the list would most likely decrease.
Under the old laws, established in 2007, offenders had to register and report for either 10 years or life. In 2012, the federal Adam Walsh Act, or Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), created three tiers: 15 years, 25 years or life.
The sentence ordering Jose M. Muniz, of Cumberland County, to register as a sex offender for life violated both the Pennsylvania and U.S. constitutions the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled. The July decision reversed the Superior Court’s ruling and vacated his requirement to register under SORNA.
Muniz was convicted in 2007 of molesting a 12-year-old girl in Cumberland County’s Upper Allen Township. Muniz was scheduled for sentencing in May of 2007, but he fled before that happened. Muniz was captured and re-arrested in October 2014. Muniz claimed the lifetime punishment was unconstitutional because the sex offender laws were different when he was convicted.
“The defendant in that case was convicted of indecent assault (against a child under 13) in February 2007,” Piecuch said. “At the time, Megan’s Law imposed a 10-year registration period for that particular offense. Before that 10 years expired though, the Pennsylvania legislature in 2012 amended Megan’s Law to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Act. Under the 2012 revision, the defendant was subject to a lifetime registration for that 2007 conviction.”
Piecuch continued, “the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled as a matter of federal constitutional law that the Legislature could not retroactively increase the defendant’s registration period because Megan’s Law is punitive in nature,” he said. “In effect, the court said that the rules that applied at the time of the conviction were locked in, and thus Muniz’s registration obligations under Megan’s Law expired in February 2017. The ruling also means that if the legislature adds offenses to the Megan’s Law list, the requirements only apply going forward with new convictions.”
The Cumberland County district attorney’s office is still considering whether to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, Piecuch said.
“When you add this case with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 to exempt juveniles from any lifetime Megan’s Law requirements, these decisions will certainly reduce the numbers of sex offenders subject to Megan’s Law,” he said.
Megan’s Law became the national registry for sex offenders following the 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey. Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender released after serving a maximum sentence, was a neighbor of Kanka’s and lured her into his home. He confessed to the killing. According to reports, no one knew Timmendequas had previous convictions for sexual assault. Community members lobbied to enact a law to have a sex offender registration and public notification that a sex offender is living and working in the community.
In Pennsylvania, the database is operated and overseen by the Pennsylvania State Police at www.pameganslaw.state.pa.us. Prior to entering the searchable database — capable of searching by county, town name, zip code — an individual must accept a disclaimer that the information will not be used to “threaten, intimidate, or harass the registrant or their family.”
When convicted of sexual offenses of varying degrees, offenders are then required to register in one of three tiers: Tier I offenders are those who have been convicted of less serious sexual crimes. Tier III offenders are those convicted of the most serious violations, including rape.
“Tier assessments are statutory — offenders are assigned to Tier I, Tier II or Tier III based on the offense,” said Ryan Tarkowski, communications director at the Pennsylvania State Police, in Harrisburg.
A rape conviction would lead to “an automatic Tier III offense requiring lifetime registration four times per year,” he said. “Sexually Violent Predator is a designation given to certain offenders by the Sexual Offender Assessment Board based on specific circumstances of the crime. So a Tier I or Tier II offender could be designated a Sexually Violent Predator and be subject to the more stringent registration requirements.”
Tarkowski said “Sexually Delinquent Child” refers to juvenile offenders. “As of December 2014, juveniles in Pennsylvania are only required to register if they’ve been classified by the court as a Sexually Violent Delinquent Child — convicted of the most serious offenses and in need of commitment for involuntary treatment.”.
Megan’s Law registrants are required to update where they work and where they live, Tarkowski said.
There is no requirements in Pennsylvania on how far an individual on Megan’s Law must live in regards to churches or schools, Tarkowski said.
The only person that can set that guideline is a judge on a case-by-case basis, Tarkowski said.
According to the 2012 revision, offenders in Tier I must register for 15 years, while Tier II is now 25 years. Tier III is lifetime registration. Law enforcement monitors the offender: Tier I offenders are required to appear annually, Tier II offenders are required to appear four times a year and Tier III offenders are watched monthly by law enforcement.
In 2016, Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Montour counties were part of a 26-county state police sweep that included checking on nearly 3,500 individuals to make sure they were in compliance with registration on Megan’s Law. Northumberland and Snyder had 10 combined individuals who were out of compliance, according to the state police.
Currently, Northumberland County has 276 registered sex offenders, while Snyder has 55. Union County has 66 and Montour County has 35, according to the state Megan’s Law website. There were only 16 registered who were removed this year when their sentences ran out.
Nearly half of the individuals in the Susquehanna Valley — 203 of 430 — are Tier III offenders, the most serious designation. Montour County has four sexually violent predators, 11 Tier I offenders, seven Tier II offenders and 13 Tier III. In Northumberland County, there are 33 sexually violent predators, 59 Tier I offenders, 49 in Tier II and 136 in Tier III. Snyder County has two sexually violent predators, 14 Tier I registrants, eight in Tier II and 31 in Tier III. Union County has four sexually violent predators, 22 Tier I offenders, 15 Tier II offenders and 23 Tier III offenders.
In 2016, the state had 20,488 registered sex offenders.
Law didn’t change
Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Matulewicz said the law hasn’t changed, but rather the application of it.
“Commonwealth vs. Muniz held retroactive SORNA registration requirements were unconstitutional because it caused an increased punishment after the fact,” Matulewicz said. “The person is subject to the registration requirements at the time of sentencing. That being said, registration will most likely decline.”
Matulewicz said Northumberland County always had a high number of registered offenders but said there are not a lot of repeat offenders. He said the county keeps up with offenders.
“Children referrals, communication with Children and Youth services, Child Advocacy Center interviews and referrals, Megan’s Law database and reports given directly to the district attorney’s office are all reviewed,” he said. “Then they are referred to local police departments and direct complaints to local and state police departments.”
Union County District Attorney Pete Johnson said the new law should be respected.
“The Supreme Court ruling is our highest court ruling,” Johnson said. “We have to follow it. The people who got pulled into the registration under those old circumstances are going to be off the registry itself.”
Johnson said some individuals who had to register for 10 years would have been forced onto the lifetime list, but the new law will now take them off the list.
“The Supreme Court said you are going backwards if you apply that and that can’t be done,” Johnson said. “They ruled that was punishing people without due process.”
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