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Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act – creatively using administrative law principles to overturn an indictment: United States v. Ross, _ F.3d _ (D.C. Circuit, No. 11-3115, February 24, 2017)

In 1999, Anthony Ross was convicted in 1999 of sexual assault, a misdemeanor offense.  In 2009 he moved from D.C.  to Ohio. In 2010   he   was   indicted   for   failing   to   register   with   local   authorities pursuant  to  the  Sex  Offender  Registration  and  Notification Act (“SORNA”), which criminalizes the offense of  “travel[ing]  in interstate  or  foreign  commerce,”  and  “knowingly  fail[ing]”  to  update  [the]  registration  when  required  by  the  act  to  do  so. 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a).

Ross unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the indictment and, after entry of a conditional guilty plea, appealed. He advanced two grounds, the first based on the fact that his conviction preceded SORNA’s enactment. Ross contended that SORNA did not apply  to  those whose alleged conduct preceded the new law’s enactment because  the  Attorney  General had bypassed the “notice and comment” requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq., in defining what pre-enactment conduct ran afoul of SORNA’s registration requirements.

Ross’s second claim, which the Court of Appeals did not reach, was that SORNA’s vesting in the Attorney General the power to define (“specify”) whether a pre-SORNA conviction fell under the new law violated the constitutional  rule  against  undue delegation  of  legislative authority. (Slip Op. at 2-3). The Court of Appeals took pains to note that the latter, non-delegation claim, has sparked much recent litigation, typically adverse to the defense – albeit with a dissent by a certain judge in United States  v. Nichols, 784 F.3d  666,  667-77  (10th  Cir.  2015)  (Gorsuch, J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc). The panel majority (Williams and Pillard, JJ) found it unnecessary to tackle that thorny issue because resolving the first ground of Ross’s appeal was sufficient to prove error and cause the indictment to be dismissed.

By way of background, the majority explained that SORNA requires  sex  offenders  to  maintain  registrations “‘where   the   offender   resides,   where   the   offender   is   an   employee,  and  where  the  offender  is  a  student.’” (Slip Op. at 3-4) (quoting 42  U.S.C.  § 16913 and citing United  States  v.  Kebodeaux,  133  S.  Ct.  2496, 2499 (2013)). There is a statutory dichotomy, however.

  1. Anyone  convicted  of  a  sex  offense  after SORNA’s   enactment must register   under   time   limits specified in the act and keep the registration current by updating his registration within three business days of any “‘change of . . . residence.’” (Slip Op. at 4) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 16913(c)).


  1. Crucially, for someone such as Mr. Ross, the statute provides that the “Attorney  General  shall  have  the  authority  to  specify  the  applicability  of  [SORNA’s]  requirements,’” and  that “the  Supreme  Court  has  read  the act not to make its registration requirements applicable “to pre-Act  offenders  until  the  Attorney  General  so  specifies….’” (Slip. Op. at 4) (citing 42 U.S.C. §  16913(d) and Reynolds v. United States,,132 S. Ct. 975, 984 (2012).

Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Williams stated that “What is critical for our purposes is when the Attorney General so specified.” (Slip Op. at 4). After wading through iterations of so-called “interim rules” and “guidelines” published by the Attorney General, Judge Williams swiftly got to the heart of the matter, finding that the “interim rule was adopted without compliance with the APA’s notice and comment“ requirements. When the interim rule was adopted the Attorney General summarily  claimed  that  “‘immediate  effectiveness”  was  needed  to  “protect  the  public  from  sex  offenders’”  by  “‘eliminat[ing]  any  possible  uncertainty  about  the  applicability  of  the  Act’s  requirements.’” (Slip Op. at 5) (quoting Interim Rule, 72 Fed.  Reg.  at 8896/3 (Feb. 28, 2007)). “Delay   would   thwart   these   goals,   he  [the Attorney General] said,   ‘because   a   substantial  class  of  sex  offenders  could  evade  the  Act’s  registration   requirements   .   .   .   during   the   pendency   of   a   proposed rule.’” (Slip Op. at 5) (quoting 72 Fed. Reg. at 8897/3).

That approach flunked the APA, the Court of Appeals concluded. The D.C. Circuit has long maintained that the ‘‘good cause” exception to the APA’s notice and comment requirement must be “‘narrowly   construed   and   only   reluctantly   countenanced.’” See Slip Op. at 5) (quoting Jifry v. F.A.A., 370 F.3d 1174, 1179 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (quoting Tennessee Gas  Pipeline  Co.  v. FERC, 969  F.2d  1141,  1144  (D.C. Cir. 1992))).   Examining the Attorney General’s explanation gave the Ross panel no confidence that any basis existed to depart from those strictures. Wanting here was any clear indication that Congress had expected the Attorney General to depart from the APA. As the Court underscored, “[f]ar from seeking ‘“immediate effectiveness,’” the Attorney General had acted at a leisurely pace and took 217 days after SORNA’s enactment to post the “Interim Rule” at issue. (Slip Op. at 6). “Because  the  Interim  Rule ‘utter[ly]  fail[ed]  to  comply  with  notice  and  comment,’  this error  ‘cannot  be  considered  harmless  if  there  is  any  uncertainty  at  all  as  to  the  effect  of  that failure.’” (Id.) (quoting Sprint Corp. v. F.C.C., 315 F.3d 369, 376 (D.C. Cir.  2003).

But was this harmless error? For its part, the Government argued that any error was harmless since the Attorney General had subsequently complied with the APA in adopting a final rule that essentially restated the Interim Rule. (Slip Op. at 6). Not so fast, the panel responded: “it  is  the Interim  Rule that  the  government  is  using  to  justify  the  indictment  for  conduct  occurring  before  the Final Rule;  procedurally  sound  adoption  of a  rule  after  the  conduct  affected  can  have  no  legitimate  effect  on  that  conduct.” (Id. at 6-7) (citing Sorenson  v.  F.C.C., 755 F.3d 702, 705-06 & n.2 (D.C. Cir.  2014). Put another way, the panel observed, “if  brute  persistence alone  could  cure  a  failure  to  invite  comment,  agencies  would have  a  perverse  incentive  to  disregard  the  comments  they received  once  they  got  around  to  allowing  them.” (Sip Op.  at 7) (citing Mack Trucks,  Inc.  v. EPA,  682  F.3d  87,  95  (D.C.  Cir.  2012)). Noting a stark divergence among the Circuits on the APA claim, the panel concluded that the Government’s disregard of notice and comment procedures was not harmless. (Sip Op. at 7) (collecting cases).

Fighting tooth and nails, the Government next pointed to the so-called “Final Guidelines” issued after the Interim Rule’s adoption.  It took nothing out of that particular claim: the panel responded that there the Attorney General appeared to have invited notice and comment and in any event the Guidelines dealt with what state agencies were supposed to do to comply with SORNA, rather than “specify” which type of pre-enactment offense fell within SORNA’s terms. (Slip Op. at 8-9).

Moving on, Judge Williams discerned “a fatal flaw” in the Final Guidelines: “the Attorney General disclaimed any authority to decide for   himself   whether   SORNA   applied   to   pre-enactment offenders.” Instead the Attorney General concluded that SORNA explicitly “had applied” to pre-enactment conduct. (Slip Op. at 9) (emphasis by the court) (citing 73  Fed.  Reg. at 38046/2). This was a materially mistaken interpretation of the statute, according to the panel. And that mistaken judgment call had consequences that undermined the Government’s claim, for “[w]here a  statute  grants  an  agency  discretion  but  the agency erroneously believes it is bound to a specific decision, we can’t uphold the result as an exercise of the discretion that the  agency  disavows.” (Slip Op. at 9-10) (citing Prill v. NLRB, 755  F.2d  941,  947-48  (D.C. Cir.  1985)).

The rationale of Prill, in turn, undermined the Government’s position. And it set the Ross case apart from a number of sister Circuit Courts of Appeals decisions which have upheld SORNA’s application to pre-enactment offenses. None of those opinions had considered the principle set forth in Prill. To the contrary, each had been resolved on other grounds. (Slip Op. at 15) (discussing authorities). Thus, because the Government could identify “no other  administrative  act  that  would  have  timely  created  an  obligation  on  Ross’s  part  to  comply  with SORNA’s mandate,” apart from the procedurally flawed Interim Rule and the Final Guidelines, which were explicitly based on legally incorrect reasoning, Ross’s conviction could not stand. (Slip Op. at 15).  .

Concurring in part and dissenting in part, Circuit Judge Millett agreed that the Attorney General had failed to comply with notice and comment requirements and that failure was not harmless. (Slip Op. at 1) (Millett, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Judge Millett, however, vigorously disagreed with the panel majority on whether the Final Guidelines “(i) explicitly announce SORNA’s  retroactive  application, (ii) afford  affected  individuals  clear  notice  of  their  retroactive registration obligations, (iii) spell out in detail how and when retroactivity  will  operate  across  divergent  state  systems,  (iv) limit the requirements for participating jurisdictions to register pre-Act offenders in specific circumstances determined by the Attorney General, and  (v)  express  the  Attorney  General’s independent   response   to   and   judgment   about   comments advocating against retroactivity.” (Id. at 1-2) (citing cases).

A tip of the proverbial hat goes to Assistant Federal Defender Lisa Wright, who argued this highly complex and challenging cause, and was ably aided on the briefs by Tony Axam, Jr., Rosanna Taormina and Chief Defender A. J. Kramer.

–Steve Leckar, of counsel to Kalbian Hagerty LLP, enjoys following and occasionally arguing in the D.C. Circuit.

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