The Court of Appeals Western District ruled Sept. 24 that a northwestern Missouri man isn’t subject to life on the state’s sex-offender registry just because his crime has been renamed.
Danny Joe Dixon, then 47, pleaded guilty in 2003 to having made sexually suggestive statements to a 15-year-old girl in a phone call. Dixon received a suspended imposition of sentence and was placed on probation for two years, which he completed.
Dixon also was required to register as a sexual offender. In 2018, he asked the Andrew County Circuit Court to remove his name from the sex-offender registry. Neither the Andrew County prosecutor nor the victim objected. But the Missouri State Highway Patrol appealed Dixon’s removal.
Dixon had taken advantage of a 2018 Missouri law that loosened the state’s requirements to register as a sex offender. Previously, registration was a lifetime requirement, no matter the nature of the particular crime. The 2018 amendment divided sexual offenders into three tiers, based on the severity of the offenses.
At the time of Dixon’s guilty plea, his crime was referred to as “sexual misconduct in the third degree,” which requires the offender to have solicited or requested another person to engage in sexual conduct under circumstances that the offender knows are “likely to cause affront or alarm.” Third-degree sexual misconduct was a class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 15 days in jail.
In 2013, the legislature rewrote the sexual-misconduct statute. The more serious first-degree version of the crime was moved to another section. The offense of which Dixon was convicted was renamed “sexual misconduct in the second degree.” Though it sounds more serious, the elements of the offense and its classification and punishment didn’t change.
Under the amended Sex Offender Registration Act, there are 15 listed offenses in tier I, the least severe category. Those convicted of those offense have to register for 15 years but can petition to be removed in as little as 10 years. An additional 13 offenses are listed as tier II offenses, subject to a 25-year registration period.
Because Dixon’s named offense — “sexual misconduct in the third degree” — no longer exists, it isn’t among the listed offenses of either tier I or II. The Highway Patrol said that meant Dixon fell under a “catch-all” provision requiring lifetime registration for any offense of a sexual nature not specified the lower tiers.
But the Western District, quoting “Romeo & Juliet,” said that approach didn’t make sense.
“The Highway Patrol argues that the mere act of renaming Dixon’s offense had the effect of subjecting him to a lifetime sex-offender registration obligation, even though persons convicted of the same offense after 2013 are entitled to removal from the sex-offender registry after ten years. We refuse to attribute such significance to the 2013 renaming,” Judge Alok Ahuja wrote. “As William Shakespeare observed more than 400 years ago, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.’”
Ahuja added that Dixon’s conviction is effectively for the least severe offense in tier I, while the tier III offenses are reserved for felonies or higher-level misdemeanors committed by repeat felony offenders.
“It hardly makes sense for the least severe offense in the entire tiered structure to be placed in the highest tier,” Ahuja wrote. Judges Cynthia L. Martin and Victor C. Howard concurred.
Cale Griffin of Griffin, Dietrich & Elliott in Cameron, an attorney for Dixon, said he was pleased with the well-reasoned opinion. He said he is handling another case involving the same offense and is aware of other cases involving statutes that have undergone changes since the time of conviction.
“I think this will set up some people to go forward now on their cases if they weren’t before,” he said.
The attorney general’s office, which represented the Highway Patrol, declined to comment.
The case is Dixon v. Missouri State Highway Patrol, WD82346.