JEFFERSON CITY — A state attorney argued Tuesday that federal law requires almost all sex offenders to register in Missouri, even though the state Supreme Court has exempted some because their crimes occurred before the registry took effect.
In 2006, the court ruled that the state constitution bans the sex offender registry from being retrospectively applied to Missouri residents who were convicted of their crime before 1995, when the law took effect.
An attorney for a group of people who committed sex crimes in other states argued Tuesday to the Missouri Supreme Court that the exemption should also cover his clients, because their crimes also occurred before that date.
The case comes as lawmakers are considering whether to create an exemption for retrospective laws to require registrations for pre-1995 offenses. The proposed constitutional amendment has been passed by the Senate. If the proposal clears the House, it would be placed on the ballot.
But Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah Morgan argued a 2006 federal law supersedes the state law because it requires nearly all sex offenders to register in the state where they live. He said the U.S. attorney general has determined that the law applies to all offenders, including those convicted before the law was passed.
Several judges said Morgan's argument would require the state high court to essentially overturn its 2006 ruling, Doe v. Phillips.
"Does that person (Doe) have to register under federal law?" asked Judge Michael A. Wolff.
Morgan replied: "They may have to, yes."
But Arthur Benson, an attorney for the 11 people challenging the state registry, said Congress never intended the law to overrule state laws. He pointed to Sen. Edward Kennedy's comments during debate that said a state should not be penalized if complying with the federal law would violate the state constitution.
"The federal act is not able to override the Missouri Constitution without a manifest declaration on the part of Congress," Benson said.
But Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith noted that the state constitution says retrospective state laws cannot "be enacted," which could still allow Missouri to enforce the federal registration requirement.
"Couldn't Missouri apply the federal law without violating the state constitution?" she asked.
Benson said that even if the judges accepted that the federal law requires pre-1995 offenders to register, it would still violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on retrospective laws.
Besides the federal requirement, Morgan also argued that Missouri law requires out-of-state offenders to register if they were previously required to register in another state. He said registering in Missouri is a continuation of that requirement and that the people voluntarily submitted to Missouri's laws by moving.
Benson said out-of-state sex offenders whose crimes occurred before 1995 should be exempt from Missouri's registry when they move to the state, just as a Missouri resident would be for crimes that occurred before then.
"It's the conduct, not the moving to Missouri, that requires them to register," he said.
Besides the out-of-state offenders, three Missouri residents also say the law shouldn't apply to them because they committed misdemeanors before 2000, when those crimes were added to the registry.