Sentencing a juvenile to register as a sex offender and to wearing an electronic monitoring device for the rest of his life is not unconstitutional, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled earlier this month.
The court’s unanimous May 3 decision in In re Justin B. held that goal of the state’s sex offender registry and its electronic monitoring systems is to protect the community and not merely to punish a defendant.
Based on that finding, the court said a South Carolina law requiring all those convicted of sexual conduct with a minor in the first degree to register as a sex offenders and wear electronic monitoring devices for the rest of their lives is not governed by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting lifetime prison sentences for minors.
“The purpose of the sex offender registry has nothing to do with retribution, and any deterrent effect of registration derives from the availability of information, not from punishment,” said Justice John Few, writing for the court. “We defer to the Legislature’s determination that these purposes are equally served by requiring registration of adults and juveniles.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling in In re Justin B. is in line with a number of decisions it has handled since 2003. But it marks the first time the court addressed the constitutionality of lifetime sex offender status for juveniles since the sex offender database was made available to the public and not just law enforcement.
Colin Miller, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina law school, said there are good arguments to be made about branding juveniles with the “Scarlet Letter” of sex offender registration for the rest of their lives. But he said the Supreme Court determined that it was a question for the Legislature to decide, not the courts.
“The whole area of juvenile justice is fascinating because of all the new psychological research coming out that says juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and should be treated differently than adults,” Miller said. “This case asked how far that should go. The South Carolina Supreme Court said that since it’s not punitive, no fundamental rights were implicated.”
Justin B.’s appeal to the Supreme Court came after he was convicted of criminal sexual assault with a minor in the first degree in 2015. At the time of the alleged crimes, Justin B. was 15 and the victim was 5 years old. (The Supreme Court did not use Justin B.’s full name because he is a minor).
Justin B.’s conviction carried a mandatory, statutory requirement that he register as a sex offender and wear an electronic monitor for the remainder of his life. Justin B.’s attorney, John Rucker of the Rucker Law Firm in Greenville, objected to the requirement, arguing it was unconstitutional. But the family court judge overseeing the case overruled the objection, stating the South Carolina Supreme Court had already decided the issue.
Justin B. appealed the decision, and his case appeared before the Supreme Court in February.
Rucker’s constitutional argument to the justices was based in large part on a U.S. Supreme Court case that was handed down after the South Carolina Supreme Court had issued rulings on the state’s sex offender registry and whether juveniles were subject to lifetime registration.
The U.S. Supreme Court’ s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons held that sentencing juvenile defendants to death was unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In writing the opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that there are fundamental differences between adults and juveniles. Kennedy said retribution would not be properly served “if the law’s most severe penalty is imposed on one whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity.”
Rucker argued that Kennedy’s reasoning should also apply to lifetime sex offender registration and electronic monitoring for juveniles.
However, that argument failed to sway the South Carolina Supreme Court. Few’s majority opinion said it has been the opinion of the court since at least 2002 that the sex offender is constitutional and that juveniles can be required to register as sex offenders for life.
Citing the South Carolina high court’s 2003 opinions in Hendrix v. Taylor and In re Ronnie A., Few said, “Sex offender registration, regardless of the length of time, is non-punitive and therefore no liberty interest is implicated.”
Few said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roper didn’t apply because it was limited to instances of punitive sentences for juveniles. “Roper does not change our view that requiring registration for life by juvenile sex offenders rationally relates to the Legislature’s purpose of protecting the public and assisting law enforcement.”
Few also rejected Rucker’s argument that the lifetime registration requirement violated the state’s duty to protect those who are unable to care for themselves and the South Carolina Children’s Code.
Few said that argument concerned legislative actions and that the Legislature should decide whether those policies were being carried out properly.
“The fact the Legislature chose to treat juveniles the same as adults in requiring registration for committing sex offenses, but to treat them differently in the punishment of ordinary offenses, is the Legislature’s prerogative—so long as the Legislature’s action is rationally related to its purpose,” Few said.
Rucker could not be reached for comment.
The 10-page opinion is In re Justin B. (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-027-17). An opinion digest is available at sclawyersweekly.com
Follow Jeff Jeffrey on Twitter @SCLWJeffrey