Monday, February 27, 2012

A Case in Statutory Interpretation: The Supreme Court Interprets the Federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act

In July of 2006, the Federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (Act) was signed into law.  This Act was a result of attempts to make a previous “patchwork of pre-Act federal and 50 state registration systems” more uniform and effective.  The Act makes it a crime for a person who is required to register under the Act as a sex offender to knowingly “fail[] to register or update [his or her] registration.”  However, the Act also specifies that “the Attorney General shall have the authority to specify the applicability of the requirements” to pre-Act sex offenders.  In February 2007, the Attorney General made the Act’s registration requirements applicable to pre-Act offenders via an interim rule.

Billy Joe Reynolds, the Petitioner and a pre-Act sex offender, registered as a sex offender in Missouri in 2005 and subsequently moved to Pennsylvania in 2007, but failed to either update his Missouri registration or register in Pennsylvania.  As a result, he was indicted for violating the Act’s registration requirements during the period between September 16 and October 16, 2007.  Reynolds moved to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the Act was inapplicable to pre-Act offenders during the period in question, and that the Attorney General’s Interim Rule was invalid because “it violated the Constitution’s ‘nondelegation’ doctrine and the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice and comment requirements.”  The district court rejected his arguments on the merits, and on appeal, the Third Circuit found that the Act was applicable to pre-Act offenders as enacted, and thus did not reach Reynolds’ arguments on the merits.  Reynolds appealed to the Supreme Court, and the case was heard on October 3, 2011.  The only question before the Court was whether the Act, as enacted, applied to pre-Act offenders.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for a 7-2 majority, held that the Act was not applicable to pre-Act offenders “until the Attorney General so specifies.”  In reaching its conclusion, the Court found that a natural reading of the statute’s textual language lends itself to the Court’s interpretation.  In pertinent part, the Court found that the text of the Act consisted of four statements: (1) that “[a] sex offender shall register, and keep the registration current”; (2) that an offender must initially register before completing either his sentence of imprisonment or, if no imprisonment is involved, within three days of conviction; (3) that the sex offender must update a registration within three business days of any change of “name, residence, employment, or student status”; and (4) that “[t]he Attorney General shall have the authority to specify the applicability of the requirements of this subchapter to sex offenders convicted before the enactment of this chapter.”

The majority held that when read naturally, the fourth statement modifies the first statement, “specifically deal[ing] with a subset (pre-Act offenders) of a broad general class (all sex offenders) to which the [first statement] applies.”  Furthermore, the Court held that because the fourth statement confers upon the Attorney General the authority to specify the applicability of the act rather than is non-applicability, it consequently follows the Act confers authority to apply the Act rather than to make exceptions.  Finally, the Court held that this reading comports with what Congress may have thought were practical problems that would arise when the Act attempted to apply the new registration requirements to pre-Act offenders.  Because the Court held that the Act as enacted did not apply to pre-Act offenders, it remanded the case in order to address Reynolds’ arguments regarding the Attorney General’s interim rule and whether it violated the Constitution’s ‘nondelegation’ doctrine and the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice and comment requirements.  If, on remand, the district court finds the Attorney General’s Interim Rule invalid, Reynolds cannot be charged under the statute.

Although this holding may seem like any other plain vanilla case of statutory interpretation, its implications for pre-Act offenders could be great.  Those similarly situated to Reynolds could avoid being brought under the ambit of the statute, especially if the Interim Rule is determined to be invalid on remand.  At first blush I tended to disagree with the Court’s interpretation, mainly because it helps an offender who, as it appears, knowingly and willfully failed to update his registration or re-register in his new home state.  However, the role of a judge is not to tailor his analysis to achieve the result he or she seeks; rather it is to use established rules of statutory construction to achieve an impartial interpretation.  It appears the Court was concerned with conflicting language in a statute, as in the instant case, providing insufficient notice to those who may be attempting to follow the law as best they can.  Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether this may limit the ways Congress chooses to delegate authority to the executive and the language used to achieve that result.

Anoush Garakani
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image by S.E.B. 


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Although the language could be read as conflicting, I think there is a lot to be said about the benefits of making the Act affect pre-Act offenders since it seems reasonable that the community would want to be informed of those pre-Act offenders. This hopefully can cause the Attorney General to be more specific since the Court has chosen to step back from that decision.