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Once on national sex offender registry, always on Missouri registry

The Missouri Supreme Court determined that someone who has been on the national sex offender registry must remain on the state’s registry for life. Two St. Louis County defendants had petitioned to scrub their names from the state sex offender registry, citing a 2018 amendment.

The 2018 amendments to Missouri’s Sex Offender Registry Act (SORA) organized offenders into three tiers of severity and allowed existing tier I and II offenders to petition to be removed from the registry after their registration period ends. Existing tier I offenders, who have committed the lowest 15 offenses, could petition after 15 years, though a clean record could reduce this to ten years.

In the joint Jan. 31 opinion, two tier I offenders had appealed circuit court judgments that denied their petitions to be removed from the registry because they were still required to register as sex offenders under the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). The Eastern District had reversed and remanded both cases, but the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the originating court’s decision.

Judge Zel M. Fischer wrote the opinion, noting that the 2018 amendment was clear when the legislature left standing language in the statute that an obligation to register under SORNA at the federal level would require registration at the state level under SORA. Missouri’s compliance with SORNA also impacts some federal funding.

Fischer stated some people still may be able to successfully request removal.

“Additionally, there may be some persons who were previously required to register in Missouri but do not otherwise have SORNA registration requirements; therefore, they may seek removal from the Missouri sex offender registry,” Fischer wrote.

Brock Smith had pled guilty to sexual misconduct in the first degree, which SORNA defines as a sex offense, while Gary Nelson Ford had pled guilty to three counts of the Class A misdemeanor of child molestation in the second degree. SORNA had required both plaintiffs to register at the federal level for more than ten years.

Fischer wrote that because Smith and Ford had been required to register on the federal registry, they were ineligible to remove their names from the state registry after their 15 years as tier I offenders lapsed.

Chief Judge Paul C. Wilson and Judges Mary R. Russell, W. Brent Powell and Robin Ransom concurred. Judge Patricia Breckenridge dissented in a separate opinion with Judge George Draper stating that the statute language “provides merely that residents of Missouri who have ever been required to register by federal law are subject to MO-SORA’s provisions” rather than disqualify them from being removed from the registry.

Stephen Fledderman of Fledderman Law Office in St. Charles represented Ford and agreed that the language in the statute had determined the scope of who the statute applied to, not who it disqualified.

“I agree entirely with Judge Breckenridge’s dissenting opinion and the rationale of the dissenting opinion,” Fledderman said.

Smith’s attorney, Nathaniel G. Diekman of Diekman & Leightner in Clayton, did not respond to a call requesting comment by press time.

The St. Louis County Counselor’s Office had represented St. Louis County officials in the Smith case. St. Louis County Counselor Dana Redwing, who was appointed to the position in late January, wrote via email that while the office declined to otherwise comment, “we are pleased with the Court’s decision so that the public and victims of sexual offenses continue to have the benefit of having sex offenders stay on the registry.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office represented the Missouri Highway Patrol in both cases. Attorney General Andrew Bailey emphasized the importance of keeping the streets safe in a statement via email through Madeline Sieren, an AGO spokeswoman.

“I am proud of the work done by my attorneys in these cases to do just that,” Bailey stated.

The cases are Brock Smith v. St. Louis County Police et al., SC99715, and Gary Nelson Ford v. Col. Jon Belmar, chief of police as chief law enforcement officer of St. Louis County, et al., SC99714.