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Unanimous Court Rules for Sex Offender Who Fled to the Philippines

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 05, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A convicted sex offender who fled the country without notifying authorities did not violate the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday. Lester Ray Nichols had been on the sex offender registry in Kansas for a year when he up and moved to the Philippines. And that was just fine, the Supreme Court found, as SORNA did not require offenders to notify authorities when they left U.S. jurisdiction.

But don't worry; the ruling does not create an international "get off the registry for free" card for sex offenders. Here's why.

From Leavenworth to Manila

Nichols was convicted in 2003 of crossing state lines in order to have sex with a minor. After eight years in federal prison, he was released and settled in Leavenworth, Kansas. As required by SORNA, he registered as a convicted sex offender, and he kept that registry active for about a year. Then, one day, Nichols disconnected his phone lines, dropped his keys off with his landlord, and hopped a plane to Manila, without ever informing authorities or updating his registration.

Authorities only knew that Nichols was gone when he didn't show up for sex-offender treatment. After an international search, he was found in the Philippines and arrested just before engaging in sexual activity -- ante flagrante delicto, if you will -- though the record doesn't state the circumstances of that encounter. Nichols was charged with violating SORNA by "knowingly failing to register or update a registration," as required by the act.

What is SORNA's Reach?

The problem was, SORNA only requires sex offenders to "register, and keep the registration current, in each jurisdiction where the offender resides." And SORNA is not international in scope, meaning that the Philippines were not a "jurisdiction" under the act.

The government argued, and the Tenth Circuit agreed, that when a sex offender "leaves a residence in a state, and then leaves the state entirely, that state remains a jurisdiction involved" under the law. The Supreme Court flatly rejected that interpretation.

As Justice Alito explained for the unanimous Court, SORNA speaks only of where an offender resides, not where he will reside. If an offender leaves SORNA's jurisdiction, he has no further obligation to update his registration. "A person who moves from Leavenworth to Manila no longer 'resides' (present tense) in Kansas," Alito explained.

A Sex Offender Free for All?

So, does this mean that sex offenders looking to get off the registry can simply renew their passports and be done? Not exactly.

As the Court notes, the decision has limited reach. After Nichols was arrested, Congress enacted the International Megan's Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders. That act does criminalize failing to provide SORNA-mandated information when traveling internationally; it simply wasn't in effect at the time Nichols fled.

That fact allowed the Court to hew to the strict language of SORNA, while remaining "reassured that our holding today is not likely to create 'loopholes and deficiencies' in SORNA's nationwide sex-offender registration scheme."

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