PA Superior Court Upholds Enforcement of Plea Agreement Precluding Sex Offender Registration

Prior to reading this article, we recommend that you first read our previous article in which we discussed the laws surrounding plea agreements, and the issue of plea agreements involving sex offender registration.

On December 12, 2012, a Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court issued an order precluding Defendant from having to register as a sex offender under the new laws because his plea agreement was negotiated by both parties to avoid this consequence. The Commonwealth appealed the ruling, and the PA Superior court released its opinion on December 12, 2013.

BACKGROUND – TRIAL COURT

In the instant case, Defendant was charged with three counts of statutory sexual assault (18 Pa.C.S. § 3122.1), two counts of aggravated indecent assault (18 Pa.C.S. § 3125(a)(8)), three counts of indecent assault (18 Pa.C.S. § 3126(a)(8)), and two counts of criminal use of a communication facility (18 Pa.C.S. § 7512). A plea was negotiated, however, where Defendant plead guilty to three counts of statutory sexual assault, three counts of indecent assault, and one count of criminal use of a communication facility, none of which charges required registration under laws at that time (2009). The two counts of aggravated indecent assault, which would have required registration were withdrawn.

After learning that he would be required to register pursuant to SORNA laws that were to be enacted in PA on December 20, 2011, Defendant filed a motion seeking termination of his supervision on December 13, 2012. The trial court denied the petition, but entered an order stating that Defendant was not subject to the registration requirements of SORNA:

Application of [SORNA] to [Defendant] violates due process of law, fundamental fairness, and provisions of the negotiated plea agreement entered into between Defendant and the government. It would also destroy the process of negotiated plea agreements essential to the efficient disposition of criminal cases in Westmoreland County.

SUPERIOR COURT OPINION

The Commonwealth appealed the decision, and the Superior Court issued its opinion. Defendant argued that that non-registration was a term of his plea agreement, and he is due the benefit of his bargain. As expected, the Commonwealth attempted to use the "collateral consequence" argument; however, the high court noted that this was not the proper standard of review, and instead, that Defendant properly framed the issue as an analysis of contract law.

The first part of their analysis was to determine "what the parties to this plea agreement reasonably understood to be the terms of the agreement." The court noted two important and obvious pieces of evidence that addressed this question: 1) the specific discussions of not having to register in the sentencing transcript, and 2) the fact that every count of the one crime that required registration was withdrawn by the Commonwealth. With this evidence, the Court concluded that the plea was fashioned to preclude Megan's Law registration.

The next question was whether "it was error for the trial court to order specific enforcement of the terms of that bargain."  The court again noted that the Commonwealth's contention that SORNA registration is a non-punitive collateral consequence was not relevant to the instant standard of review, and that "the dispositive question is whether registration was a term of the bargain struck by the parties to this appeal."  The court stated:

The terms of plea agreements are not limited to the withdrawal of charges, or the length of a sentence. Parties may agree to — and seek enforcement of — terms that fall outside these areas. See Kroh, 654 A.2d at 1169 (ordering specific enforcement of a plea bargain that barred the Commonwealth from calling the defendant as a witness in a separate proceeding). Moreover, even though a plea agreement arises "in a criminal context, it remains contractual in nature and is to be analyzed under contract law standards." Id. at 1172.

In negotiating a plea that will not require him to register as a sex offender, the defendant trades a non-trivial panoply of rights in exchange for his not being subject to a non-trivial restriction. Fundamental fairness dictates that this bargain be enforced.

[Defendant's] reliance on the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971), lends support to this conclusion. The Santobello Court ruled that "when a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled."

The Commonwealth attempted to analogize the instant case to prior decisions, but the high court found these analogies to be misplaced. In one case relied on by the Commonwealth Commonwealth v. Benner, 853 A.2d 1068 (Pa. Super. 2004)), the defendant entered a plea of guilty that subjected him to a 10-year registration requirement, but later was required to register for life when a new version of Megan's Law was enacted. The defendant argued that his plea was involuntary and unlawful because he was not made aware of the registration requirement by the trial court, or, in the alternative, that he should be subject to the 10-year requirement in effect at the time of his plea. The high Court found the this case was easily distinguishable from the instant case because registration WAS a requirement of his plea, AND the record did not support the defendant's contention that he had bargained for non-registration as a term of his plea.

The Superior Court also stated that "the cases relied upon by the Commonwealth address the voluntariness of those defendants' pleas. (See Benner, supra; Commonwealth v. Leidig, 956 A.2d 399 (Pa. 2008)). The defendants in Leidig and Benner did not seek specific enforcement of their pleas under contract law principles. In the instant case, [Defendant] does not challenge the validity of his plea, or seek to withdraw it; rather, he asks this Court to enforce the terms of his plea. Thus, the cases cited by the Commonwealth do not control the issue currently before this Court."

SUPERIOR COURT RULING

Accordingly, we conclude that the parties to this appeal entered into a plea bargain that contained a negotiated term that Hainesworth did not have to register as a sex offender. As such, it was not error for the trial court to order specific enforcement of that bargain, and we affirm the trial court's order.

Conclusion

What does this mean? This means that if you have "proof" that your plea agreement was fashioned to avoid sex offender registration, and you were subsequently required to register pursuant to SORNA, you should contact a defense attorney to file a motion to enforce your agreement based upon the outcome of this case. The level of "proof" required is not explicity clear, but examples of proof include: 1) transcripts, 2) correspondence documents, 3) admissions by prosecutors, and 4) legal documents showing which charges were dismissed.

Disclaimer

Please note that our firm does not handle registration issues, but strives to provide the public with a clear understanding of the laws. If this ruling is applicable to your situation, you should contact and hire a criminal defense attorney in your area immediately. If you reside in the Pittsburgh area, you might consider contacting The Law Offices of David S. Shrager who handles such issues. If you or someone you know is currently being charged with a sex crime and needs legal assistance, please visit our website and contact our sex crime defense attorneys.

The materials available at this website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use and access to this website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney.

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17 Responses to PA Superior Court Upholds Enforcement of Plea Agreement Precluding Sex Offender Registration

  1. Terry says:

    This is, indeed good news and thank you for sharing.  While this is true justice (it gives hope that the Commonwealth can stop walking around with it's chest extended using asinine and outdated arguments such as:  collateral vs. punitive), I can't help but wonder how many (it HAS to be close to 100 people or more in PA) were illegally required to register (and remain on the list to this day) for CMM and IA.  These were never registerable offenses to begin with (with some exceptions after certain dates, etc.) so it is highly unlikely that anyone would have had anything in the transcipts of any court proceeding that would have mentioned NOT having to register.  With that said, though this is good for those that had to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees in order to correct mistakes the "good guys" are paid to uphold…  It doesn't help the 100 + that are now forced to register when it was never a consideration in the past.  Though I agree that this is a victory, it's really just common sense.  We've really reverted to paying judges the amount of money that we do to judge rulings that anyone with a 5th grade education could take care of?

    • Jim says:

      this is the start of the whole retroactivity portion of the new law to come crumbling down. because essentially now someone can say well if the court ruled that someone who wasnt required to register before and had to under the new law and now doesnt have to, why cant the same apply to those who already plea agreed to be on megan's law for certain amount of years and have had that broken to satisfy the new requirements. if my plea deal says i only have to register for 10 years and now i have to for lifetime, that is also a breach of contract. in my opinion the retroactivity of the law should never have been implimented. i have no problem with the new law taking affect and those who commit crimes on or after that day have to be subject to the new law, but those who already have had their plea agreements and judgements handed down.. some almost 10 years ago and who were just about to be released from having to register.. should not have had their judgements changed.  regardless what the lawmakers were thinking, its still breaking contract law and that is illegal.

  2. Terry says:

    I agree and it's maddening (to put it mildly) that our "Commonwealth" is allowed to break the law with no consequence whatsoever.  All we can really hope is that PA follows the same common sense as OH and OK.

  3. Kevin says:

    I realize this is the wrong forum for this comment, but I believe it is urgent for every registrant in Pennsylvania to be informed of the recent signage of the Child Protection Bills and their affects on the everyday lives of sex offenders. House Bill 726 was part of the legislation that was signed by Gov. Corbett. This bill redefines what constitutes child abuse in Pennsylvania. One provision in the bill declares that a parent can be charged with child abuse if he or she leaves their child unsupervised with a tier II or tier III sex offender. No actual abuse need occur to the child for child abuse charges to be filed. The only exception is if the sex offender is the parent of the child.

    Not only does this severely hamper an individual's attempt at social reintegration, but it lays the groundwork for the destruction of families where the sex offender is a non-guardian step-parent. This new definition has essentially made it illegal for a sex offender to freely associate with anyone that has children. Furthermore, with mandatory reporting laws for child abuse, any instance where a sex offender could be left unsupervised with a child will be reported and likely investigated whether those reports are valid or not.

    It is incredibly important that the sex offenders in PA are made aware of this change so that no one inadvertently is dragged into this. 

    • Jim says:

      hey look.. im all for better laws for child abuse… but i mean come on now.. this is going too far. so essentially someone who leaves their children with a sex offender would now be considered a child abuser and therefore potentially end up on SORNA themselves. this is absurd and not right at all. i was a tier 1 before this stupid law last year was changed and now im a tier 3. my wife and i have our nieces up every so often to stay for the weekend. what this basically says is that their mother could be changed with child abuse and she could end up on megan's law as well. these laws here in pa are getting worse and worse every year. im really considering moving back to nj. i guarantee next year a law will be signed into effect that says you can not be alone with your own child. its government going too far to make themselves feel better.

      • Kevin says:

        In your example your sister or sister-in-law could indeed be charged with child abuse if your nieces are left in your unsupervised care. Even if your wife agrees to never allow them to be unsupervised with you, do you think your sister would risk the chance of having her lose her kids over it? Would you even want to put her in a position to even consider it? These are the things that are going to be facing the friends and family members of PA sex offenders in the coming future. 

        • Jim says:

          see now this is a perfect example of the government way overstepping its boundaries. now they can tell me who i can and not see within my own family? im sorry but that is completely unacceptable. im not a child rapist, a statuatory sexually violent predator, nothing that extreme at all. i was a tier 1 for talking to a girl online. thats all. i made a mistake and that was it. when the new law was enacted last year they moved me to tier 3. however im on tier 3 under sex offender… not sexually violent predator. however tier 3 is only reserved for sex predators but the state can not change my classification because i was ruled as an offender and the person in harrisburg said by law they cant change that but can change my tier. so im like by moving to tier 3 you are classifying me as a sex predator even though im not and she said you are a tier 3. and i was like how can i be if im not a sex predator and shes like theres nothing i can do about it. this state has screwed me over so much since i moved here its unbelievable.

          • Kevin says:

            It's interesting that your offense sounds very similar to mine. Internet crime of talking to a minor (sting operation), convicted outside of PA, then moving to PA and given a tier after the SORNA legislation was enacted. The only difference is I am registered as a tier I offender. My assumption for my tier is that my conviction is not easily translated into PA code and thus they had to give me a tier I designation. 

            If our convictions are essentially identical, wouldn't that difference qualify under equal protection laws in the US constitution (14th amendment)?

          • Kevin says:

            In 2008, the Pennsylvania ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a man against PA Children and Youth Services who threatened to take his children away if he did not voluntarily place them with someone else. The reason CYS threatened him was because he had had a legal sexual relationship with a 16 year old. CYS assumed he was a danger to his own children. Through the lawsuit he was eventually reunited with his children. 

            This makes me wonder if the ACLU would be willing to fight this new definition of child abuse before it becomes active on Decenber 31, 2014. 

        • Jim says:

          so now heres the kicker. in the national department of justice database, i am listed in there as my offense being a misdameanor. i only know this because thats what my court papers say and also when i applied for a job and my background check came back and i saw i was ineligble i looked why and under it stated i was a felon which is not true. so i made many phone calls to have that corrected and now in the DOJ's database is the correct classification. So what i dont get is how the US DOJ and Ohio and NJ all see me as what i am which is a level 1 non-repeat offender and misdameanor offence, why is the state of PA thumbing their nose up at and classifying me as a convicted felon and categorizing me as a tier 3.  it actually cost me my job when someone found me online and freaked out and called my employer and threated that either i was fired or would tell the company i was outsourced to that i was working there. my company stood behind me so this person told the parent company and i was escorted off the premesis. how is that fair? i passed the background check the second time and i was not a threat to anyone there. but because the person who reported felt like i was going to target their child when in fact i was working somewhere id never been before.. didnt know the area.. anything..  even my boss tried to talk to this guy and he wasnt having anything of it.

        • Jim says:

          kevin, for some reason it wouldnt let me reply under your last comment so ill place it here. the difference i believe is you probably only received 1 count of your offense. i received 2 counts of my M1 offense.. it was in ohio..  so by having 2 misdameanors im automatically a tier 3 regardless of how minor the offense is. how is that for being fair? in ohio they are listed as 2 but count as 1 offense.

      • Kevin says:

        The whole set of laws that were signed on Wednsday were touted as a response to the Sandusky scandal.

        It is my belief that Child Protective Services also lobbied for this. I'm sure they see cases where they believe (rightly or wrongly) that a sex offender boyfriend is abusing his girlfriend's child. Without a complaint there's nothing that could be done to rescue the child. With the passage of this new definition, it's no longer an issue. CPS just says to the mother, if you want to date this guy, you lose your kids. Period. Makes it a pretty easy decision for the mother…

    • Jim says:

      this is going to be seriously challenged in court just as the new SORNA laws are right now. and with a successful crack in the sorna law just happening, its only a matter of time before this sees court action as well.

  4. Prince says:

    Do anyone know the type of motion one should file with the courts as the above defendant did ?

  5. Prince says:

    Today I mailed in my Petition to Enforce Plea Agreement. Ive been working on this Petition for about a month now making sure all is right, After carefully gaithering info and looking up case law along with hours of research i can finally say that I feel good about the work I have put in to make this Petition fashionable for the courts. So when i get a decision I will post the out come regardless of the decision. Nonetheless im optimistic about the outcome being in my favor. The courts must uphold the plea agreement (contract).

    • jon says:

      Good luck,

      I too am trying what you are doing through the public defenders office, I have court next week i hope all goes well in both of our cases

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