Thousands of defendants convicted of sex-related crimes are being removed from Maryland’s sex offender lists after a recent court ruling. Although the initial reaction is outrage, the legal principles that justify removing the names are sound and serve to protect all criminal defendants no matter with what crime they are charged.
What is the Sex Offender Registry?
In Maryland, like many states, if a defendant charged with certain sex-related crimes is convicted, the accused is labeled a sex offender. The sentence doesn’t have to be severe–a defendant could accept a penalty of probation and no jail time, but still be forced to be labeled a sex offender.
Out of concern that individuals charged with these kinds of crimes could be a menace to the public, states such as Maryland developed sex offender registries or lists, which are simply databases where people can search their neighborhoods and be alerted to who may be living around them that has been designated a sex offender.
Why People Are Being Removed From the Registry
The reason why thousands are being removed from the current list is because of what is known as retroactivity. In criminal law, retroactivity means that if you are convicted of a crime, and the punishment for the crime is increased after your conviction, you only are subject to the punishment as it existed when you were convicted–not the new, increased punishment.
Maryland’s registry was created in 1995. So, if someone were convicted of a sex crime in, for example, 1992, before there was a registry, they were still being included in the registry. A Maryland appellate court has now said that those convicted before the registry existed must be removed from the list because the punishment of being on the registry didn’t exist when they were convicted.
This seems like a legal technicality preventing people from identifying dangerous people who may be living among them. But actually, it’s a victory for due process and legal fairness.
For an example, imagine you were convicted for possession of marijuana. You are convicted and given a maximum penalty. Just as your prison term is about to end, the legislature changes the law, raising the maximum penalty. Now you would have to serve the new maximum. And just as you are about to finish that term, the legislature decides that a fine of $100,000 can be assessed for people convicted of your crime. Now you owe that money. The punishment and prison term could never end.
Or, imagine that you take a plea. You know the maximum penalty for your crime is one year, so you decide to risk it and go to trial. You may not have made that decision if the maximum jail time was 5 years, or 10. There would be no way for criminal defendants to make educated decisions about plea bargains, without some certainty in their potential penalties if convicted.
Retroactivity is designed to allow criminal defendants to have a definite, understandable, and established penalty. It is also designed to protect criminal defendants from unending sentences, which could be the case if they were always subject to changing laws, years after their conviction.
The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience with the rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.