Sexual offender registration
By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer
COLUMBUS — In 1996 the Ohio legislature passed a sex offender registration statute that came to be known as Megan’s Law. It was named for seven-year-old Megan Kanka, the little New Jersey girl who, in the summer of 1994, was abducted from her home, then raped and murdered by a neighbor named Jesse Timmendequas.
Timmendequas, who had a record of sex offenses, had quietly moved in just across the street from Megan and her family. He lived in a house with two other convicted child molesters.
The appalling circumstances surrounding Megan’s murder jolted the New Jersey legislature into action. Within three months New Jersey lawmakers had crafted legislation that required public notification when a sex offender moved into a neighborhood. Because released sex offenders have the highest risk of recidivism — meaning that they often end up committing the same crimes again after getting out of prison — all 50 states and the federal government eventually passed some type of sex offender registration laws.
Ohio already had a sex offender registration law that had been in place since 1963. But in 1996 the Ohio legislature rewrote the law and updated it. The purpose of registration laws is to provide public awareness: if the community knows that a sex offender is getting out of prison and moving into the neighborhood, the people can “prepare themselves and their children” for the offender’s release — something Megan’s parents didn’t have a chance to do.
All of which leads us to the case of Ronald Gingell. In 1981, Gingell was convicted of three counts of rape. He was incarcerated and was originally classified as a sexually oriented offender in accordance with amendments that had been added to Megan’s Law in 2003.
To comply with Megan’s Law, Gingell had to verify his address once each year for ten years. Under the law, Gingell’s failure to properly register as a sexually oriented offender would have been a fifth-degree felony.
But as of January 1, 2008, the Ohio General Assembly repealed Megan’s Law and replaced it with the Adam Walsh Act. The Adam Walsh Act was named for the six-year-old boy who was abducted from a Sears store in Hollywood, Florida, in 1981. The search for the kidnapped boy became national news, but sadly he was never seen alive again.
The Adam Walsh Act organizes sex offenders into three tiers, with Tier III being the most serious. In accordance with the new law, Gingell was reclassified by the attorney general as a Tier III sexual offender.
A Tier III offender is required to verify his address every 90 days for the rest of his life. And the failure to verify an address is the same degree offense as the underlying sexual offense. In Gingell’s case, that meant that a failure to verify his address would be a first-degree felony.
On July 2, 2008, Gingell was indicted on two first-degree felony counts for violating the law. The first count alleged that Gingell had failed to verify an address on or about May 6, 2008; the second alleged that Gingell had failed to provide notice of an address change on June 24, 2008.
Gingell pleaded guilty to the first count; the second count was dismissed. On November 19, 2008, the trial court sentenced Gingell to an eight-year prison term and five years of post-release control.
After being sentenced, Gingell took his case to the court of appeals. He argued that the trial court had made an error in retroactively applying provisions of the Adam Walsh Act to his case, which made his failure to verify his address a first-degree felony. Gingell maintained that the court should have applied the version of the law that was in place at the time of his original classification, which would have made his failure to verify his address a fifth-degree felony.
The court of appeals held that there was no retroactive application of the law because Gingell’s failure to register occurred after the January 1, 2008 date of the new law.
After that, his case came before us — the Supreme Court of Ohio. Gingell’s appeal was based primarily upon the issue of the retroactivity of the law. However, during the time that his appeal was pending, our court issued a decision in a case called State v. Bodyke, which addressed the constitutionality of the reclassification under the Adam Walsh Act of sexual offenders previously classified under Megan’s Law.
In Bodyke, our court held that the reclassification provisions in the Adam Walsh Act were unconstitutional and severed them from the Act. Our court specifically addressed what that severance meant for offenders like Gingell, who had originally been classified under Megan’s Law and were then reclassified under the Adam Walsh Act.
In that opinion, we said that the reclassification provisions may not be applied “to offenders previously adjudicated by judges under Megan’s Law, and the classifications and community-notification and registration orders imposed previously by judges are reinstated.”
Thus, in accordance with our decision in the Bodyke case, Gingell’s original classification under Megan’s Law and the associated community-notification and registration order were reinstated. Therefore, the current version of the law, which requires Tier III sexual offenders to register every 90 days, does not apply to Gingell.
Since Gingell was charged after his reclassification and before our decision in the Bodyke case, there was no doubt that he was indicted for a first-degree felony for a violation of the reporting requirements under the Adam Walsh Act. Because the application of the Adam Walsh Act was based upon an unlawful reclassification, we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals — by a seven-to-zero vote — and vacated Gingell’s conviction for a violation of the 90-day address-verification requirement that’s in the Adam Walsh Act.
However, Gingell remained accountable for the yearly reporting requirement under Megan’s Law. Whether he met that requirement was not a part of this case, and thus we did not issue a ruling on that matter.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The case referred to is: State v. Gingell, 128 Ohio St.3d 444, 2011-Ohio-1481. Case No. 2010–0047. Decided April 5, 2011. Majority opinion written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.