The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in People v. DiPiazza, (COA # 284946) on November 3, 2009, that a defendant who completed HYTA (Holmes Youthful Trainee Act) could not be required to register under Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry Act because it imposed on the defendant cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Michigan Constitution, Const 1963, art 1, § 16.
Robert DiPiazza, age 18, had consensual sexual intercourse with his then-14-year-old high school sweetheart. A high school teacher had found a photograph of the two in bed and contacted the local prosecutor. Subsequently, he pled guilty to one count of attempted CSC, 3d degree, and was sentenced under the HYTA in August, 2004. He successfully completed his term of probation. (The two were ultimately married in 2009 and expecting their first child in June of this year). The trial court, however, ruled that DiPiazza was still required to register as a sex offender because the SORA was not amended until six weeks after he was sentenced. The trial court stated, “If I had some discretion, yours is one of those Romeo and Juliet cases where I would probably grant your relief.”
In Michigan, the Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA), MCL 28.721 et seq., had been in a state of flux between 1995 and 2004. Prior to 1999, there was no issue if a HYTA candidate was required to register as a sex offender as the SORA did not provide for a public database and therefore if one was required to register and received HYTA, which keeps records private and leaves a young person with no criminal conviction, the public would not be privy to that information. Between October 1, 1995 and October 1, 2004, if one was convicted of a sex offense, one was required to register even if granted YTA status. The legislature corrected the problem for HYTA recipients by amending SORA, effective October 1, 2004, and stating that a youthful trainee was no longer required to register if he or she successfully completed HYTA. Mr. Dipiazza fell into the group between 1999 and October 1, 2004, as he pleaded guilty on July 23, 2004.
The court was struck by the disparity of the sentences between someone who was sentenced prior to, or after, October 1, 2004. Judge Fitzgerald wrote for the court, “[i]t is incongruous to find that a teen that engages in consensual sex and is assigned to youthful trainee status after October 1, 2004, is not considered dangerous enough to require registration, but that a teen that engaged in consensual sex and was assigned to youthful trainee status before October 1, 2004, is required to register. The implied purpose of the SORA, public safety, is not served by requiring an otherwise law-abiding adult to forever be branded as a sex offender because of a juvenile transgression involving consensual sex during a Romeo and Juliet relationship.” (P. 7).
The court decided that two questions needed answering; first, do the registration and notification requirements of SORA impose punishment on a defendant? Second, do the registration and notification requirements of SORA impose cruel and unusual punishment? The court found both in the affirmative. On the cruel and unusual punishment analysis, the court was moved by an Indiana court decision in Indiana v. Wallace, 905 NE 2d 371 (2009), that said Indiana’s SORA is punitive because it makes information available on all sex offenders without restriction and without regard to whether the individual poses any particular risk. The Michigan court concluded that Mr. Dipiazza, “… is not a sexual predator, nor did the trial court deem him to be. Further, even if defendant needed rehabilitation, SORA’s labeling him to be a convicted sex offender works at an opposite purpose, preventing defendant from securing employment and otherwise moving forward with his life plans.” (P. 11). Thus, the court held that as applied to Mr. Dipiazza the requirement to register as a sex offender amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
We will keep an eye on this interesting case, and be sure to let everyone know if the Muskegon County Prosecutor decides to apply to the Supreme Court for leave to appeal.
Daniel Corrigan Grano contributed to this post.