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Court rules lifelong sex offender registry unconstitutional without review process

Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 6:27 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that requiring sex offenders to be on a registry for life is not constitutional without some sort of review process.

South Carolina’s Sex Offender Registry Act is almost 30 years old and requires most offenders to check in with local deputies at least twice a year. Some are required to check in four times a year.

According to the FAQ section of the state’s registry website, an offender will only be removed from the registry if the offense is “reversed, overturned, or vacated on appeal and a final judgment has been rendered,” or if they were pardoned.

BACKGROUND OF CASE

In 2010, a man named Dennis Powell was convicted for criminal solicitation of a minor.

According to the Supreme Court ruling, Investigators said he was in an internet chat room in 2008 and planned to meet a 12-year-old girl at a skating rink in Lexington, but he was actually talking to an undercover officer. The conversations were “graphically sexual in nature.”

According to the Supreme Court ruling, Powell was arrested, indicted, plead guilty, served his time and probation, and received psychiatric treatment.

Powell was told at his sentencing he had to register as a sex offender for life and has done so for more than ten years now.

Two doctors said he was low-risk for re-offending, the court said.

In 2016, Powell filed a petition with Circuit Court saying that requiring him to register for the rest of his life was excessive and deprived him of due process and equal protection.

The Circuit Court agreed with him, but the State Law Enforcement Division appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

That’s the decision we saw come out today.

S.C. SUPREME COURT DECISION

The state Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court decision and said Powell should be taken off the registry immediately.

Live 5 found Powell on the registry earlier today, but he no longer appears in a search as of 5:50pm.

The Supreme Court said it’s not constitutional to require offenders to register for the rest of their life without a chance to see if they are actually high risk to re-offend.

The ruling said, “The lifetime inclusion of individuals who have a low risk of re-offending renders the registry over-inclusive and dilutes its utility by creating an ever-growing list of registrants that is less effective at protecting the public and meeting the needs of law enforcement... Moreover, there is no evidence [that]... all sex offenders generally pose a high risk of re-offending.”

The Circuit Court also said that 1994 sex offender law didn’t allow for publishing the registry online.

But the Supreme Court did not uphold that part of this case, which means SLED can continue posting the registry on the internet.

The Court gave the General Assembly twelve months to rewrite the law and provide sex offenders a chance for judicial review.

The review would consider his or her risk of re-offending and decide if they should be on the registry for life.

We have not heard back from SLED about this ruling and how it will affect operations with the registry.

IMMEDIATE LOCAL IMPACT

Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis said the ruling will likely not impact his county-level law enforcement operations much.

“The sex offender registry is very important to the safety and security of residents in our 46 counties,” Lewis said. “Many people rely on the registry to make decisions about where to live. Employers use it as well to check applicants to jobs. It’s an excellent opportunity to help protect citizens.”

Lewis said SLED oversees and manages the registry. In the Sheriff’s Office, he has a deputy in charge of getting updates such as address changes from the offenders. They meet face to face. The county then transfers that info to SLED for the state registry, Lewis said.

If an offender does not check in or there’s another violation, the county reports that to SLED and executes and charges related to the violation.

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