Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Moving Violations

United States v. Guzman; United States v. Hall, Nos. 08-5561-cr; 08-6004-cr (2d Cir. January 7, 2010) (Miner, Straub, Wesley, CJJ)

Defendants Guzman and Hall were both registered sex offenders in New York. Each moved to another state without updating his registration, and was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a), which makes it a crime for a person required to register as a sex offender to travel in interstate commerce and knowingly fail to keep his registration information current. Each defendant moved to dismiss his indictment on several grounds; the district court rejected all but the Commerce Clause challenges. Finding that the statutory scheme (“SORNA”) exceeded Congress’s authority to legislate pursuant to the Commerce Clause, the district court dismissed the indictment in both cases. On these consolidated government appeals, the circuit reversed.

The court first noted that § 2250(a) itself is a proper exercise of the power to regulate commerce, since it only criminalizes a knowing failure to register if the offender travels in interstate or foreign commerce. Interstate travel inherently involves the use of the channels of interstate commerce and is properly subject to congressional regulation under the Commerce Clause.

The district court’s decision had rested on its assessment of the underlying registration requirement, set out in 42 U.S.C. § 16913, which simply requires that the offender keep his registration current. In the district court’s view, this section lacked an interstate travel jurisdictional element and did not regulate activity that substantially affected commerce. Since a conviction under § 2250 would necessarily rely on an unconstitutional registration requirement, the court dismissed the indictments.

The circuit disagreed. It noted that the purpose of the statutory scheme was to make sure sex offenders could not avoid all registration requirements just by moving to another state. Section 16913 was accordingly constitutional under the Necessary and Proper Clause, since Congress has the power to regulate purely intrastate activities where necessary to make a regulation of interstate commerce effective. This section is a “perfectly logical way to help ensure that state will more effectively track sex offenders when they do cross state lines” and, even though it regulates solely intrastate activity, it is reasonably connected to a legitimate commerce power goal.

The court also rejected the defendants’ alternative grounds for affirming the dismissal. The provision that delegates to the Attorney General the authority to specify the legislation’s applicability to sex offenders convicted before the statute was enacted is not an improper congressional grant of legislative authority to the executive branch. And the fact that none of the relevant states had SORNA-compliant registries in place at the time was irrelevant under the court’s recent decision in United States v. Hester (blogged below as SORNA Doom). Nor does SORNA violate the Tenth Amendment since it does not commandeer state officials into administering federal law.

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