832 A.2d 962 (Pa. 2003), Commonwealth v. Williams

Citation:832 A.2d 962, 574 Pa. 487
Opinion Judge:The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Saylor
Party Name:COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Gomer Robert WILLIAMS, Appellee. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Bruce Peters, Appellee.
Case Date:September 25, 2003
Court:Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Page 962

832 A.2d 962 (Pa. 2003)

574 Pa. 487

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant


Gomer Robert WILLIAMS, Appellee.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant


Bruce Peters, Appellee.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

September 25, 2003.

Argued April 8, 2002.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[574 Pa. 492] James Kenneth Vogel, Erie, for the Com. of PA, Appellant.

Amy M. Elliott, for Sexual Offenders Assessment Bd., Amicus Curiae Appellant.

Ines M. Massella; Leonard Sosnov, Wilmington, DE; Joseph Paul Burt, Erie, for Gomer Robert Williams, Appellee.

Leonard Sosnov, Wilmington, DE; James Andrew Pitonyak, Erie, for Bruce Peters, Appellee.

Karl Baker, Philadelphia, for Defender Ass'n of Philadelphia, Appellee Amicus Curiae.

Andrea F. McKenna, Harrisburg, Robert A. Graci, Pittsburgh, for Atty. Gen. Office, Com. of PA.




These are consolidated direct appeals from the orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, striking down certain provisions of the statute commonly known as Megan's Law, as amended in 2000. The primary question presented is whether the statute's registration, notification, and counseling requirements, applicable to individuals deemed sexually violent predators, constitute criminal punishment. Because we find that they do not, we

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reverse the trial court's orders and remand for further proceedings.


On July 27, 2000, Appellee Gomer Williams sexually assaulted a seventeen-year-old girl at knifepoint in the women's restroom of a movie theater. On March 21, 2001, Williams pleaded guilty to rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (IDSI), aggravated assault, terroristic threats, and possessing instruments of crime. 1 As rape and IDSI are predicate offenses triggering an adjudication of sexually violent predator status under Pennsylvania's Registration of Sexual Offenders Act (hereinafter, "Megan's Law II" or the "Act"), 2 see 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9795.4(a), 9795.1(b)(2), the trial court ordered the State Sexual Offenders Assessment Board (the Board) to evaluate whether Williams is a sexually violent predator. Thereafter, on March 26, 2001, Williams filed a Motion for Extraordinary Relief, arguing that the sexually violent predator provisions of Megan's Law II violate the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. By opinion and order dated June 20, 2001, the trial court granted the motion and declared the challenged provisions unconstitutional. After Williams was sentenced, 3 the Commonwealth filed a timely notice of appeal, seeking relief from the trial court's declaration that the disputed portions of the Act are constitutionally infirm. 4

Appellee Bruce Peters was charged with IDSI for allegedly performing sexual acts upon his minor stepson on January 27, 2001. On May 2, 2001, Peters pleaded guilty to that offense before the same trial judge as Appellee Williams, whereupon the trial court ordered the Board to assess whether Peters is a sexually violent predator. On August 1, 2001, Peters filed a Motion for Relief, requesting a declaration that Megan's Law II's sexually violent predator provisions would not be applied to him, and citing the trial court's June 20, 2001, order as to Appellee Williams. The court granted Peters' motion the same day based upon its decision in Williams' case. Peters was then sentenced, and the Commonwealth filed a timely notice of appeal.


In 1995, the General Assembly amended the Sentencing Code by adding Subchapter H, entitled "Registration of Sexual Offenders," codified at 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9791-9799, and generally referred to as "Megan's Law" (hereinafter, "Megan's Law I"). Among other things, Megan's Law I established a procedure for adjudicating certain offenders--namely, those that committed one of the predicate offenses listed in the statute--as "sexually violent predators." The mandated procedure included a post-conviction, pre-sentence assessment by the Board, followed by a hearing before

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the trial court. At the hearing, the offender was presumed to be a sexually violent predator and bore the burden of rebutting such presumption by clear and convincing evidence. If the individual was adjudicated a sexually violent predator, he was subjected to an enhanced maximum sentence of life imprisonment for the predicate offense, as well as registration and community notification requirements that were more extensive than those applicable to an offender who was not adjudicated a sexually violent predator.

In Commonwealth v. Williams, 557 Pa. 285, 733 A.2d 593 (1999) (Williams I), 5 this Court struck down the sexually violent predator provisions of Megan's Law I based upon the conclusion that a finding of sexually violent predator status under that enactment entailed a "separate factual determination, the end result of which is the imposition of criminal punishment," i.e., increasing the offender's maximum term of confinement above the statutory maximum for the underlying offense. See id. at 304, 733 A.2d at 603. Thus, the defendant was entitled to the "full panoply of relevant protections which due process guarantees," including a presumption of innocence. Id. As the statute placed the burden upon the registrant to prove that he was not a sexually violent predator, it failed Fourteenth Amendment scrutiny. See id. Notably, in view of the punitive nature of the increased maximum prison sentence, the Williams I Court invalidated the challenged [574 Pa. 495] provisions without reaching the question of whether the enhanced registration and notification requirements constituted criminal punishment. See id. at 302 n. 10, 733 A.2d at 602 n. 10.

After Williams I was decided, the General Assembly passed Megan's Law II, which was signed into law on May 10, 2000. Although the stated legislative policy remained the same as in Megan's Law I, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9793(b) (discussed infra), the General Assembly altered the manner in which an individual convicted of a predicate offense was adjudicated a sexually violent predator. The critical distinction, for present purposes, is that, under Megan's Law II an offender convicted of an enumerated predicate offense is no longer presumed to be a sexually violent predator. Rather, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving such status by clear and convincing evidence. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.4(e)(3). 6 Additionally, persons

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adjudicated to be sexually violent predators are no longer subjected to an automatic increased maximum term of imprisonment for the predicate offense. Instead, they are required to undergo lifetime registration, notification, and counseling procedures; failure to comply with such procedures is penalized by a term of probation or imprisonment. 7

Under Megan's Law II, any offender convicted of a predicate offense, whether or not he is deemed a sexually violent predator, must: (1) register his current residence or intended residence with the state police upon release from incarceration, parole from a correctional institution, or commencement of an intermediate punishment or probation; (2) inform the state police within ten days of a change of residence; and (3) register within ten days with a new law enforcement agency after establishing residence in another state. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.2(a). 8 State police officials then forward this data, together with fingerprint and photographic information obtained from the sentencing court, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.3(4), to the chief of police of the locality where the offender will reside following his change of address or release from prison. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.2(c). For sexually violent predators, the police chief in turn notifies the individual's neighbors, as well as day care operators and school officials within the municipality. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9798(b). The data sent to these recipients includes the offender's name, address, offense, and photograph (if available), as well as the fact that he has been determined by a court to be a sexually violent predator, "which determination [574 Pa. 497] has or has not been terminated as of a date certain." 9 See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9798(a). The sexually violent predator's name and address, including any subsequent change of address, is also sent to the victim of the offense, until the victim requests that such notification be terminated. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9797.

Sexually violent predators must register pursuant to the above provisions for their lifetime. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.1(b)(3). Although the Act is not explicit on this point, if sexually violent predator status is subsequently terminated, the individual would appear to revert to "offender" status, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9792 (defining "offender"), in which case the total period of

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registration, determined in accordance with the predicate offense and/or number of convictions, would be either ten years, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.1(a)(1) (single conviction of various offenses), 10 or the offender's lifetime. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.1(b)(1), (2) (relating to multiple convictions of offenses enumerated in Section 9795.1(a), and conviction of various other offenses, respectively). 11 However, it is not clear from the Act itself--and the [574 Pa. 498] parties have not addressed the question--whether any mechanism exists under Pennsylvania law for invoking such subsequent review, see supra note 9; nonetheless, for reasons discussed infra, the presence or absence of any such mechanism does not alter the disposition of these appeals.

In addition to registration upon release from prison and upon changes of address, sexually violent predators must periodically verify their address with the state police. To accomplish this, the state...

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