Hundreds of names of convicted sex offenders may be removed from the state's list of registered sex offenders as the result of an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling handed down Tuesday.
In a split decision, the court ruled state corrections officials have been violating the Oklahoma Constitution by retroactively applying state sex offender registry laws, thereby dramatically increasing the time many convicted sex offenders must spend on the registry.
“It should be fairly significant,” Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said of the impact of Tuesday's ruling.
There are currently 7,704 names on Oklahoma's sex offenders list, Massie said.
Massie said it was probably safe to say hundreds of convicted sex offenders would be impacted but declined to speculate on whether the numbers could reach into the thousands.
Individual case reviews likely will be necessary to determine which convicted sex offenders should be removed from the list, he said.
The Supreme Court issued its ruling after scrutinizing a 2007 state law that requires the Department of Corrections to assign a three-tiered risk level to convicted sex offenders.
The law requires convicted sex offenders to be placed on the sex offender registry for 15 years, 25 years, or life, depending on their assigned risk levels which are tied to the specific crimes they committed.
“We find it was not intended to apply retroactively, but is to be applied prospectively,” the court stated.
Justices issued the decision on a 6-2 vote, with Justices James Winchester and Steven Taylor dissenting. Chief Justice Tom Colbert partially agreed and partially disagreed with the decision.
Taylor and Winchester both said they thought it was constitutional to apply the sex offender registry laws retroactively.
“The public's right to have this information trumps the discomfort and inconvenience caused to the convicted sex offender,” Taylor wrote in his dissenting opinion.
The majority of justices, however, decided that Oklahoma's sex registry laws are punitive toward violators and should not be applied retroactively to inmates who were convicted while earlier laws were in place.
Tulsa attorney John Dunn, who represented sex offender James Starkey Sr. in his Supreme Court appeal, said the court's determination that Oklahoma's sex offender registry laws are punitive was critical to the case.
Punitive laws cannot be applied retroactively, he said.
Dunn said there are numerous aspects of Oklahoma's sex offender registry laws that make them punitive.
“Oklahoma law provides restrictions on where a sex offender may live, with whom a sex offender may live, prevents them from engaging in certain occupations or occupations in certain locations, and creates a presumption against them having guardianship or even the right to visit their own children,” Dunn argued to the court.
He also noted that sex offenders are required to get drivers' licenses every year instead of every four years, paying full price each time, and that the state requires the words “sex offender” be stamped on the licenses.
Starkey, Dunn's client, pleaded no contest in Texas in 1998 to a charge of sexual assault on a 15-year-old child. He received a deferred judgment that included community supervision for 10 years, a $4,000 fine and 60 days in a county jail.
Starkey moved to Oklahoma later that year and was initially required to register as a sex offender in this state for 10 years, in accordance with the state's law at that time.
However, after Oklahoma's law changed in 2007, corrections officials contended Starkey would have to register for life.
Tuesday's ruling means Starkey no longer will have to register, since the original 10-year registration requirement time has expired, Dunn said.