Federal Judge Rules For Tenn. Sex Offenders, Rebukes State

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge on Friday had harsh words for Tennessee officials who continue to enforce retroactive punishments against sex offenders, some of whom committed their offenses decades before the state's sex offender law took effect.

“Tennessee officials continue to flout the Constitution’s guarantees,” U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger wrote in her ruling ordering officials to remove eight men from the sex offender registry and stop subjecting them to restrictions on where they can live and work, among other things.

In April, a different federal judge, also in the Middle District of Tennessee, ordered two men be removed from the sex offender registry, finding that it was unconstitutional to subject them to sex offender laws that were written after they committed their offenses.

In her Friday order, Trauger cited the April ruling and other similar recent rulings. She noted that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016 ruled against the retroactive enforcement of a Michigan sex offender law.

“The federal district courts of this state have repeatedly concluded that the same analysis applies ... to Tennessee's own, very similar scheme and policies,” Trauger wrote. Despite those rulings, “Tennessee officials have continued to impose the state's repeatedly-held-to-be-unlawful policy on other, similarly situated individuals."

Lawyers for the state argued that the eight individuals, identified in court documents only as John Does #1-8, should be kept on the registry in the interest of protecting public safety and preventing future offenses. However, Trauger wrote that the state had provided no meaningful evidence that any of the plaintiffs pose a threat to anyone.

John Doe # 1 pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault of his girlfriend in Hawaii in 1994, according to court filings. Since completing probation, he has not been convicted of another crime but rather “led a productive, law-abiding life,” according to the complaint. He is married, has children, and owns and operates a successful business.

Because he is subject to Tennessee's sex offender laws, he is required to report in-person to law enforcement within 48 hours of changing his address, job, or email address, opening a Facebook account, or buying a vehicle, among other things. Failure to report can result in criminal charges.

And even though his offense did not involve a child, he is restricted from being around children, according to the complaint. He cannot attend events at his children's school. When one of his children was injured at school, and he rushed to see the child, school personnel called law enforcement. He cannot take his children to parks or playgrounds and does not allow them to invite friends to the house for fear of violating the restrictions.

The Ex Post Facto of the U.S. Constitution clause bars governments from increasing the punishment for a crime that was committed previously. In order to find a violation of the clause, a judge must determine that the law being enforced retroactively is punitive. Trauger noted that the violation doesn't rely on the hardships faced by an individual plaintiff, but the punitive nature of the statute on its face.

Trauger did not immediately order a ninth plaintiff, who does not currently live in Tennessee, to be removed from the state's sex offender registry and restrictions because the state has filed a motion to dismiss his claims that is still pending.