In most states, including West Virginia, when an individual commits a serious sexual offense, he or she may be required to register as a sex offender after a criminal sentence is completed. Due to the high rates of recidivism among sexual offenders and the unique risks posed to children, state legislators have decided that this continued requirement is justified even when an individual has already served time in prison. Recently, however, the local courts in West Virginia asked the Supreme Court to consider a novel question: whether individuals who committed sexual offenses while juveniles were required to register as sex offenders upon turning 21. The Supreme Court agreed to address this question and resolve the issue.
This question arose out of two individual cases. In the first case, J.E. was charged with attempted sexual assault when he was 13 years old. The court held a hearing, and J.E. was adjudicated as a juvenile offender. He was placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Juvenile Services until he was 21, and he was placed on probation after his 21st birthday. At that time, the court determined that he was released from the Department of Juvenile Services, but the government questioned whether he should have to register as a sex offender. The circuit court requested the guidance of the Supreme Court on the issue. In the second case, Z.M. was charged with two incidents of sexual assault while he was 15 years old. He agreed to a plea deal under which he was adjudicated as a delinquent child and was also placed with the Department of Juvenile Services. When he turned 21, the government also requested that he should be required to register as a sex offender.
West Virginia’s sex offender registration statute states that “any person who has been convicted of an offense or an attempted offense” under the statute, which includes the offense of sexual assault, shall be required to register as a sex offender. Here, since the two individuals were adjudicated as delinquent juveniles, rather than convicted, the Supreme Court decided that it had to determine whether such adjudication fell within the scope of “any person who has been convicted.” The government argued that other state statutes frequently included juvenile offenders within the meaning of someone who was convicted, while the defendants argued that adjudication and conviction were two very different things, and, had the government wanted to convict them, it could have transferred jurisdiction over their cases to the criminal courts.
The Supreme Court determined that it was clearly the intent of the legislature, and consistent with prior court opinions, to hold that the West Virginia sex offender registration statute does not require juveniles adjudicated as delinquent to register as sex offenders because they were not convicted within the meaning of the law. It noted that prior Supreme Court cases had held that juvenile adjudications are not the same as criminal convictions. Moreover, in separate statutes contained within the West Virginia code, the legislature had clearly stated that juvenile adjudications were not meant to be treated as criminal convictions. The court held that had the legislature wanted to include juveniles within the sex offender registration statute, it could have explicitly referenced juvenile adjudications, which it did not do. Accordingly, it held that neither J.E. or Z.M. was required to register as a sex offender upon turning 21.
Requiring a defendant to register as a sex offender can have harsh and lasting consequences for that individual’s life. They will be forever required to notify authorities when they move or change work addresses, and they will be required to keep a certain distance from locations such as schools. While such punishments may be warranted in certain circumstances, they can also be too broadly applied if defendants are not careful. If you are a defendant facing charges for an alleged sex offense, you should talk with a criminal defense attorney about how to avoid a potential sex offender designation. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients in both state and federal courts for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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