Monday, November 09, 2009

A small but important step in limiting sex offender registries

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When he had freshly turned 18, Robert Dipiazza was in a consensual sexual relationship with a teenage girl who was nearly 15. By all accounts, they were very much in love and planned to live their live together. Even the girl’s parents knew all about their relationship, and gave them their blessing. (Now, how many 15-year-old girl’s parents do you know who would give an 18-year-old permission to be and (especially) sleep with their daughter?)

Unfortunately, one of the girl’s schoolteachers found out about them and turned Dipiazza in to the police. He was promptly arrested and charged with having a consensual sexual relation with a minor – ie. a classic one-way-ticket into the sex offenders registry, ensuring that his life would effectively be postponed for as long as his name was on that list. He’d never get a job (he actually lost two jobs he did have when his status as a “sex offender” was discovered), and society in general would treat him about as well as they treat pedophiles and rapists. Because, you see, he was on the same list as they were, so naturally, he had to be as bad as they are. Even if his only “crime” was to consummate his love with a girl just a few years younger than he was.

Dipiazza’s sentencing was probation, which he completed faultlessly in 2005, which resulted in his charges being dropped and his name cleared – except for it still being in the sex offenders registry. Although it was ruled that his name being kept on the sex offender list did not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” as his name being on the list supposedly wasn’t a punishment, the court did agree to reduce the amount of time Dipiazza’s name had to be on the list from the original 25 years to a “mere” ten years. Because a decade of social ostracism isn’t still hell or “punishment” at all.

Thankfully, though, there has been a breakthrough that promises to act as an important precedent for future cases of the sort. The Michigan Court of Appeals has overturned the ruling entirely, docking Dipiazza’s name from the sex offender list and, amongst many other things, finally allowing him to marry the girl he loves. The court agreed that in this particular circumstance (and others like it), given the harmlessness of Dipiazza’s “crime” (his sexual relationship) and the fact that everyone involved (him, the girl and her parents) were fully aware and consenting to said relationship, keeping his name in the sex offender registry did, in fact, constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”, given the harshness of what he had to endure as a direct result of it. The ruling, below (see full ruling here[PDF]):

Here, the circumstances of the offense are not very grave. Defendant was 18 years old and in a consensual sexual relationship with a teen who was almost 15 years old. The teen's parents knew of the relationship and condoned it. This teen is the same person defendant married five years later. The gravity of the offense does not change regardless of the date on which the assignment to youthful trainee status occurred.

The penalty in this case, however, has been harsh. Defendant is being required to register as a sex offender for ten years. He receives the social stigma of being labeled as a sex offender and the social stigma of being "convicted" of a crime even though he successfully completed his status as youthful trainee and the court dismissed the proceedings. As a result of registering as a sex offender, defendant has been unable to find employment and, in fact, lost two jobs after it was discovered that his name is on the sex offender registry. He is depressed and, although he finally married Trowbridge, the opportunity to marry and pursue happiness was withheld from him because of his inability to find employment as a result of being labeled a convicted sex offender. Given the circumstances of this case, the offense that defendant committed was not very grave, but the penalty has been very harsh.


Also, it is abundantly clear that there is no goal of rehabilitation in this case. Defendant never posed a danger to the public or a danger of reoffending. Defendant is not a sexual predator, nor did the trial court deem him to be. Further, even if defendant needed rehabilitation, SORA's labeling him to be a convicted sex offender works at an opposite purpose, preventing defendant from securing employment and otherwise moving forward with his life plans.

Consequently, after considering the gravity of the offense, the harshness of the penalty, a comparison of the penalty to penalties imposed for the same offense in other states, and the goal of rehabilitation, we conclude that requiring defendant to register as a sex offender for ten years is cruel or unusual punishment.

Let us hope that this is a first step towards ruling that no child under eighteen (except, perhaps, for extreme exceptions) would ever be placed onto that damned list. And, afterwards, that no-one who has a safe, responsible and consensual sexual relationship with anyone else, regardless of either of their age, would also not be lopped in with child molesters, rapists and other miscreants who do deserve to be on that list.

(via Dispatches From the Culture Wars)