By Kalvis Golde
The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.
A person held in state prison can challenge the constitutionality of their criminal conviction in federal court through a legal tool known as a writ of habeas corpus. Habeas relief is available to anyone “in custody,” which the Supreme Court has interpreted to mean not only physical confinement but also other restrictions such as parole and release pending trial. This week, we highlight petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether someone who is subject to sex-offender registration requirements for the rest of his life can be considered “in custody” and therefore eligible to seek federal habeas relief.
Louis Clements is a Florida resident and registered sex offender. He was placed on the state’s sex-offender registry for life in 2008, when he pleaded guilty in state court – under pressure from his lawyer and family, he maintains – to a charge of “lewd and lascivious conduct.” As a registered sex-offender, Clements faces a variety of reporting requirements. He must report to his local sheriff’s office twice per year, notify the state within 48 hours of any changes in his employment, residence, or out-of-state travel plans, and live at least 1,000 feet away from places frequented by children. The failure to comply with these requirements is a felony under Florida law.
In 2017, Clements went to federal court, seeking to challenge the constitutionality of his conviction. But the district court dismissed his case, agreeing with the state that it did not have the power to hear his case because he was not “in custody.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that dismissal. It acknowledged that, starting in the 1960s, the Supreme Court has expanded the meaning of custody for habeas purposes beyond physical confinement. But those expansions, the 11th Circuit explained, were for people on parole or pretrial release who face extensive limits on personal freedom and movement. Conceding that its own cases and Supreme Court precedent made this “a hard question to answer,” the court of appeals reasoned that Florida’s sex-offender reporting requirements are not severe enough to constitute custody.
In Clements v. Florida, Clements asks the justices to grant review and reverse the 11th Circuit’s ruling. He argues that there is a divide among the courts of appeals over whether similar sex-offender regimes place registrants “in custody” for purposes of the habeas statute. In support, Clements points to a 2019 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which held that registered sex-offenders in Pennsylvania are entitled to seek habeas relief. Pennsylvania’s law governing requirements for registered sex-offenders, he writes, “is in all relevant respects the same as Florida’s.”