Supreme Court Decision on Missouri Sex Offender Carries Implications Across U.S.

A sex case that began in Missouri and passed through Pennsylvania continued its path all the way to Washington, where this week U.S. Supreme Court released an opinion that poses just as many questions as answers when it comes to sex-offender registration laws.

In a 7-2 ruling announced January 23, the justices declared that sex offenders who who registered as such prior to the 2006 signing of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act need not re-register as sex offenders if they move across state lines, reversing a previous ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case originated with Missouri native Billy Joe Reynolds, who was convicted of a sex crime in 2001 and registered as a sex offender in 2005 after leaving prison. When he moved to Pennsylvania in 2007, he chose not to re-register as a sex offender and was arrested, convicted of violating the Walsh Act and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. He sued.

The Walsh Act, named in memory of a young Florida boy who was kidnapped and murdered, significantly beefed up sex offender sanctions by implementing new laws and requiring sex offenders to re-register no longer than three days after moving across state lines.

The Supreme Court ruling now exempts sex offenders with older sex-crime rap sheets who take up residences in new states. It also challenges legislators to create their own registration laws. But until that happens, the ruling not surprisingly has some child-protection advocates and lawyers miffed.

"My thought is if you are a sex registrable offender and you want to go somewhere, well go to Pennsylvania. Because as of yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that's okay, it's not against the law to go to Pennsylvania and work and live and apparently you don't have to register there-- at least not at this time," Dee Wampler, a Springfield defense attorney, told local News Channel KSPR.

But the seven-judge majority argued that applying the Walsh Act retroactively would open up too many cans of worms, and that new laws are best left up to state attorneys general. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer stated: "The problems arise out of the fact that the Act seeks to make more uniform a patchwork of pre-existing state systems. Doing so could require newly registering or re-registering "a large number" of pre-Act offenders. That effort could prove expensive. And it might not prove feasible to do so immediately."

The dissenting judges made an odd couple. Conservative justice Antonin Scalia and liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg argued that the Adam Walsh Act protocol should apply for pre-Act offenders.

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