York County SORNA Challenge

Juvenile Law Center, along with York County Public Defender, Barbara L. Krier, and Amicus Curiae, Defender Association of Philadelphia, filed seven post-disposition motions and a memorandum of law in support of the motions on behalf of youth in York County who were required to register as sex offenders for adjudications of delinquency that occurred prior to Pennsylvania’s new sex offender registration law becoming effective.

The Motions were filed with the juvenile court seeking nunc pro tunc relief, a mechanism that allows the court to review a case when the time for filing an appeal has passed. All seven youth had been adjudicated delinquent for sex offenses prior to December 2012 when the law went into effect; in December, they were required to register as sexual offenders. The motions for nunc pro tunc relief ask the court to reconsider their classification as juvenile sex offenders and remove their information from the sex offender registry.

Juvenile Law Center argued that juvenile sex offender registration violates the Pennsylvania and United States constitutions and the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act. Because the youth had already been adjudicated and given a disposition for their offenses, the imposition of sex offender registration was an added punishment in violation of the ex post facto clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. Furthermore, the registration obligation and onerous reporting obligations (including in-person reporting every 90 days or whenever a change in circumstance occurs) impose disproportionately harsh punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. With no evidence of an increase in public safety accompanying registration and documented, exceptionally low risk of reoffense, juvenile registration serves no legitimate or compelling state interest.

Juvenile Law Center also argued that the youth’s rights to procedural due process have been violated and, because registration results in stigma, including direct and indirect notification to individuals in the community, it violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s express protection of reputation. Finally, the registration requirement contravenes the rehabilitative principles of the Juvenile Act.

On November 4, 2013, in a landmark ruling for Pennsylvania, York County Court of Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler ruled that Pennsylvania's recently enacted law requiring that juveniles convicted of sexual offenses be subjected to lifetime sex offender registration violates their rights under various provisions of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions, as well as Pennsylvania's Juvenile Act. 

Juvenile Law Center Deputy Director and Chief Counsel Marsha Levick argued the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on May 6, 2014.

On December 29, 2014 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of York County Senior Judge John C. Uhler, holding that SORNA’s registration requirements violate juvenile offenders’ due process rights by utilizing the irrebuttable presumption that all juvenile offenders “pose a high risk of committing additional sexual offenses.”

Grounding its opinion in the constitutional guarantees of due process, Justice Max Baer, writing for the majority, ruled that the juveniles’ constitutionally-protected right to reputation is encroached upon by an irrebuttable presumption of future offending that is not universally true and where a reasonable alternative means exists for determining the presumed fact. 

“While adult sexual offenders have a high likelihood of reoffense, juvenile sexual offenders exhibit low levels of recidivism… many of those who commit sexual offenses as juveniles do so as a result of impulsivity and sexual curiosity.  [T]he vast majority of youth are unlikely to recidivate,” wrote Justice Baer.