Reynolds v. United States
565 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
This case concerned the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (Act), 18 U.S.C. 2250(a), which required convicted sex offenders to provide state governments with, and to update, information for state and federal sex offender registries. Petitioner, a pre-Act offender, registered in Missouri in 2005 but moved to Pennsylvania in September 2007 without updating the Missouri registration or registering in Pennsylvania. The question before the Court was the date on which the federal registration requirement took effect with respect to sex offenders convicted before the Act became law. The Court held that the Act did not require pre-Act offenders to register before the Attorney General validly specified that the Act's registration provisions applied to them. Accordingly, the Court reversed a Court of Appeals determination that, in effect, held the contrary.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

REYNOLDS v. UNITED STATES

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the third circuit

No. 10–6549. Argued October 3, 2011      —Decided January 23, 2012

The federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (Act) requires convicted sex offenders to provide state governments with, and to update, information, e.g., names and current addresses, for state and federal sex offender registries. It is a crime if a person who is “required to register under [the Act]” and who “travels in interstate . . . commerce” knowingly “fails to register or update a registration.” 18 U. S. C. §2250(a). The Act defines “sex offender” to include offenders who were convicted before the Act’s effective date, 42 U. S. C. §16911(1), and says that “the Attorney General shall have the authority to specify the applicability of the [registration] requirements” to pre-Act offenders, §16913(d). The Act, which seeks to make more uniform and effective a patchwork of pre-Act federal and 50 state registration systems, became law in July 2006. In February 2007, the Attorney General promulgated an Interim Rule specifying that the Act applies to all pre-Act offenders. He has since promulgated further rules, regulations, and specifications.

          Petitioner Reynolds, a pre-Act offender, registered in Missouri in 2005 but moved to Pennsylvania in September 2007 without updating the Missouri registration or registering in Pennsylvania. He was indicted for failing to meet the Act’s registration requirements between September 16 and October 16, 2007. He moved to dismiss the indictment on the ground that the Act was not applicable to pre-Act offenders during that time, arguing that the Attorney General’s February 2007 Interim Rule was invalid because it violated the Constitution’s “nondelegation” doctrine and the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice and comment requirements. The District Court rejected on the merits of Reynolds’ legal attack on the Interim Rule, but the Third Circuit rejected his argument without reaching the merits, concluding that the Act’s registration requirements applied to pre-Act offenders even in the absence of a rule by the Attorney General. Thus, it found, the Interim Rule’s validity made no legal difference in the outcome.

Held: The Act does not require pre-Act offenders to register before the Attorney General validly specifies that the Act’s registration provisions apply to them. Pp. 6–13.

     (a) This conclusion is supported by a natural reading of the Act’s text, which consists of four statements. Statement One says that “[a] sex offender shall register, and keep the registration current.” Statement Two says that, generally, the offender must initially register before completing his “sentence of imprisonment.” Statement Three says that the sex offender must update a registration within three business days of any change of “name, residence, employment, or student status.” Statement Four says that “[t]he Attorney General shall have the authority to specify the applicability of the requirements . . . to sex offenders convicted before the enactment of” the Act. §16913. Read naturally, the Fourth Statement modifies the First. It deals specifically with a subset (pre-Act offenders) of the First Statement’s broad general class (all sex offenders) and thus should control the Act’s application to that subset. See Gozlon-Peretz v. United States, 498 U. S. 395 . Also, by giving the Attorney General authority to specify the Act’s “applicability,” not its “nonapplicability,” the Fourth Statement is more naturally read to confer authority to apply the Act, not authority to make exceptions. This reading efficiently resolves what may have been Congress’ concern about the practical problems of applying the new registration requirements to a large number of pre-Act offenders, which could have been expensive and might not have proved feasible to do immediately. It might have thought that such concerns warranted different treatment for different categories of pre-Act offenders. And it could have concluded that it was efficient and desirable to ask the Justice Department, charged with responsibility for implementation, to examine pre-Act offender problems and to apply the new requirements accordingly. This reading also takes Congress to have filled potential lacunae (created by related Act provisions) in a manner consistent with basic criminal law principles. The Second Statement, e.g., requires a sex offender to register before completing his prison term, but says nothing about when a pre-Act offender who has left prison is to register. An Attorney General ruling could diminish such uncertainties, helping to eliminate the kind of vagueness and uncertainty that criminal law must seek to avoid. Pp. 6–9.

     (b) The Government’s three principal contrary arguments—that the Court’s reading conflicts with the Act’s purpose of establishing a national registration system that includes pre-Act offenders; that the Court’s reading could lead to an absurdly long implementation delay; and that the Act should be read to apply the requirements immediately and on their own to all pre-Act offenders to avoid the possibility that the Attorney General, who has, but is not required to use, “the authority to specify” requirements, might take no action—are unpersuasive. Some lower courts have read the Attorney General’s authority to apply only to pre-Act sex offenders who are unable to comply with the statute’s “initial registration” requirements, but that is not what the Act says. Pp. 9–13.

     (c) Because the Act’s registration requirements do not apply to pre-Act offenders until the Attorney General so specifies, the question whether the Attorney General’s Interim Rule is a valid specification matters in this case. P. 13.

380 Fed. Appx. 125, reversed and remanded.

     Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined.

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