JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday considered how to apply laws making it illegal for sex offenders to be near parks and for felons to possess a gun when their initial offense occurred before the restrictions were created.
At issue before the high court in five separate cases was part of the Missouri Constitution prohibiting retrospective and ex post facto laws.
In each case, defendants faced prosecution after running afoul of a law that applied to them because of a previous criminal conviction. A judge dismissed a charge in four cases, while a fifth defendant was convicted and appealed.
Three cases focused on a 2009 law that prohibits those convicted of a sexual offense from knowingly being present or loitering within 500 feet of a public park with playground equipment or a public swimming pool. Violators can be charged with a felony and face up to four years in prison.
Attorney S. Dean Price, who represents a sex offender whose charge for violating the 2009 law was dismissed, said the restrictions were not part of what his client bargained for when he pleaded guilty to the sex crime.
"He shouldn't go to prison for something where the rules got changed," Price said. For people convicted after the 2009 law, "We think it's a great idea going forward."
The Missouri attorney general's office said the bar on retrospective laws applies to civil and not criminal statutes.
Daniel McPherson, an assistant attorney general, said in his written argument the ban on retrospective laws is aimed at preventing instances where someone cannot avoid liability because all prerequisites happened before the law was enacted. He said someone can avoid criminal penalties, however, "simply by refraining from the activities prohibited under the statute."
The Missouri Supreme Court has considered other cases dealing with new restrictions for sex offenders.
In 2008, the court upheld a trial judge's decision to strike down part of a law expanding a prohibition on sex offenders living within 1,000 feet of a school or day care to those already living in those places. In 2010, it sided with a man convicted of a sex offense before the housing-restrictions law who wanted to move into his fiancee's home. The high court also upheld dismissal of a misdemeanor charge against a man who was convicted of a sex offense previously and accused of violating a Missouri law requiring sex offenders avoid Halloween-related contact with children.
The attorney general's office argued those decisions should no longer be followed.
In the gun cases, a charge was dismissed against two people accused of being a felon in possession of a gun. Missouri lawmakers in 2008 broadened state law to apply the ban to all felons. Violating the prohibition is a felony with a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
In the two cases before the Supreme Court, the initial felony convictions were handed down before the 2008 law. A judge in one case concluded the law was retrospective, and a different judge ruled in the other case it was an ex post facto law.