Supreme Court to Interpret SORNA's Moving Away Provisions


Lester Ray Nichols, a convicted sex offender, moved from Kansas to the Philippines without notifying anyone, triggering a case that will soon be heard by SCOTUS.

If a convicted sex offender wants to move out of the country, or the state, or even their neighborhood, do they have to tell anybody? That’s the topic of a case that will be heard by the United States Supreme Court on March 1.

Lester Ray Nichols is a federally convicted sex offender who left his residence in Kansas and moved to Manila. Federal authorities weren’t too happy about that, so when they finally tracked him down, they escorted him back to Kansas where he was eventually convicted of failing to notify authorities of his move.

The decision in Nichols’ case hinges on the interpretation of two SORNA provisions – SORNA is the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.

  1. Sex offenders must register and continue to register in the jurisdiction where they reside, as well as the jurisdictions where they work or go to school, if different.
  2. Sex offenders must notify their jurisdiction in person within three days of changing their name, residence, employment, or student status. The jurisdiction the offender reports to is then required to notify all other jurisdictions where the offender is required to register.

Nichols, after he was brought back to Kansas from the Philippines, was convicted on the grounds that he failed to notify Kansas (his jurisdiction of residence) of his move to the Philippines. If Nichols was moving to any other U.S. jurisdiction, he would have been able to notify his new jurisdiction, but because the Philippines is a jurisdiction where SORNA does not apply, Kansas was Nichols’ only option for notification of the change in residence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit confirmed this, citing the decision in United States v. Murphy.

Nichols is now taking his argument to the Supreme Court of the United States. He is arguing that, because the Philippines is not a SORNA jurisdiction, he was not required to report his residence change to the Philippines – and because he was no longer a resident of Kansas after his move, he argues that he was not required to report to Kansas either.

The government disagrees, stating that although Nichols didn’t physically reside in Kansas after his move to the Philippines, he remained on Kansas’ sex offender registry with current resident status. While the government claims “involvement with” a jurisdiction trumps “physical residence in” a jurisdiction, Nichols argues this contradicts the intent of the law, which is to protect children in the jurisdiction where the convicted sex offender resides. Since Nichols didn’t live in Kansas, he posed no threat to children in Kansas.

Another facet of Nichols’ argument is the government’s failure to use other avenues to identify when a sex offender leaves the country. Since Nichols was traveling internationally, he would have used his passport. He argues that the government could have easily used this method to detect when he moved away. The government counters that all passport data reveals is when a person leaves, not how long they will be gone or the intent of the trip (i.e. permanent move vs. visiting).

This is also an issue of expending resources and finances unnecessarily, according to the government. Had Nichols just reported that he was moving, they would not have had to conduct the massive investigation to track him down.

If the Supreme Court reverses Nichols’ conviction, the government fears this will create a loophole in SORNA – that convicted sex offenders can simply move out of the country to escape registration requirements. Nichols’ response? So what. If SORNA’s goal is to protect U.S. children, then registration should not be required when an offender moves out of the country.

If the offender moved back, the requirements under SORNA would resume at that point. Nichols’ attorney wants the court to think of an offender moving out of the country the same way they would an offender who has died – in that they no longer pose a threat to SORNA protected children. You can read more about Nichols v. U.S. here.

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