The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act and the Commerce Clause
6 Pages Posted: 24 Nov 2008 Last revised: 13 Mar 2009
Date Written: November 21, 2008
In 2006, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act ("SORNA") created a new federal crime of "failure to register" which is punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. Since that time, sex offenders across the country have been prosecuted even though the offenders had no prior connection to the federal criminal justice system. For almost all of the prosecutions under SORNA, the argued jurisdictional basis for federal prosecution has been that the sex offender travelled across state lines. Based upon this travel, which is an element of the crime of failure to register, the government has argued that the new registration crime is justified under Commerce Clause authority. An overwhelming majority of courts that have addressed Commerce Clause challenges have accepted the government's argument that interstate travel is a sufficient jurisdictional hook. However, a careful examination of existing Commerce Clause law demonstrates that these courts are mistaken. For the Commerce Clause to have any meaning and for the decisions in Lopez and Morrison to make sense, the alleged interstate travel must be connected to the underlying offense in fact and time. Despite the limitations of prior Supreme Court precedent, courts have enabled the government to prosecute sex offenders who crossed state lines years before SORNA was even enacted. Further, courts have not required any showing that the travel had any connection to the alleged offense of failing to register. While some have argued that the decision in Raich effectively ended the federalism revolution, SORNA expands federal jurisdiction into entirely new territory. As a result, this article concludes that courts should dismiss most indictments under SORNA based upon a lack of federal jurisdiction and/or Congress should amend SORNA to properly reflect the jurisdiction authorized under existing precedent.
Keywords: Sex Offender, Registration, Adam Walsh, SORNA, Commerce Clause
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