Friday, November 2nd, 2007

Who’s SORA Now?

Willette v. Fischer, No. 06-1422-pr (2d Cir. October 29, 2007) (Meskill, Newman, Sotomayor, CJJ)

Although the Blog does not regularly report on decisions in state prisoners’ habeas corpus proceedings, this nifty case has relevance to federal criminal practice.

Steven Willette, a convicted sex offender in New York State, was tried and convicted, inter alia, of multiple violations of New York’s Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA). During 1997 and 1998, Willette was living with his girlfriend but, on the four occasions that he was supposed to report his address (SORA prescribed ninety-day intervals), he falsely stated that he was still living with his father. Willette was found guilty of four SORA counts of failing to report change of address. He received a six-month misdemeanor sentence on the first SORA count, and three consecutive felony sentences on the others, for a total of ten and one half to twenty-one years’ imprisonment.

Here, the circuit agreed with Willette’s claim that his “multiple punishments” for “more than one violation of a single statute” violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. Based on a close reading of the relevant statutes, the court rejected the state’s claim that the relevant “unit of prosecution” for this type of SORA violation was “each day that a sex offender fails to report a new address.” For Willette, who lived with his girlfriend four about fourteen months, this “daily offense” theory would have exposed him to 3,000 years in prison. Thus, while the six-month sentence on the first SORA violation was valid, the court vacated the consecutive sentences imposed on the three additional SORA counts.

The relevance to federal practice is that there are now various federal statutes that require sex offender registration, and impose criminal penalties for the failure to do so. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 16913 and 42 U.S.C. § 14072. This decision should be kept in mind in those cases when the feds try to charge multiple violations.

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