Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2021

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Juvenile sex offender laws struck down — for now

Sun online exclusive

If Judge William Voy’s courtroom were the major leagues, Friday’s constitutional challenge case would be an exhibition game.

That’s how the judge explained it.

It would be an exhibition game because the controversy in question — the constitutionality of Nevada’s new sex offender laws as they apply to juveniles — will really be played out on the field, to carry the metaphor, of Nevada’s Supreme Court.

But Thursday morning in the Family Court building, in extra innings after months of court filings and legal back and forth, Voy was at bat. He ruled the juvenile sex offender laws Nevada adopted with the passage of Assembly Bill 579 are unconstitutional.

In other words: Thwack! It’s out of the park!

It was a farm league victory for the juvenile public defender’s office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which are already cleaning their cleats for the deciding game in Carson City.

The laws being challenged in AB 579 are based on the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, signed into law by President Bush in July 2006. The federal law lumps teenage sex offenders 14 and older in with adults when it comes to certain punishments and requires that many of those juvenile offenders be included in Internet sex offender registries. The state’s new laws would also be applied retroactively, meaning anyone who was at least 14 years old and convicted of a crime against a child after July 1, 1956, is subject to the new regulations.

Susan Roske, deputy public defender, argued the state laws were unconstitutional for a number of reasons, including that such punishments are cruel and unusual and would relegate juvenile sex offenders to a lifetime of public humiliation counterproductive to rehabilitation.

Voy rejected this argument. He also rejected Roske’s argument that the court cannot change a juvenile offender’s sentence retroactively. In fact, he rejected all of Roske’s arguments but one: The new laws, Voy agreed, are unconstitutional because they violate due process.

This reasoning, for anyone who’s not an attorney, is as complicated as a 4-5-3 double play to someone who doesn’t understand baseball.

Here it is in slow-mo: Under the new laws, 14-year-old sex offenders can be punished as adults. But a child who is 13 years, 11 months and 29 days can’t. This age distinction, Voy noted, is arbitrary. Without a rational reason for the age cap, the law is a violation of due process, because part of due process is the right to rational law.

Were it not for Voy’s determination, the laws would go into effect July 1. Maggie McCletchie, ACLU of Nevada staff attorney, expects the laws will not be enforced until the Supreme Court hears the appeals. The state’s high court is not expected to rule on the case before July 1.

The courtroom spectators, the few convicted juvenile sex offenders Roske invited to watch the proceedings alongside interested attorneys, all expected this outcome. Even Jonathan VanBoskerck, deputy district attorney, knew coming in that he would probably lose. The culture of the juvenile courts, he said, generally sees teenage sex offenders as children with mental health issues rather than culpable criminals. The state Supreme Court, he can only hope, is distant enough from the issue to consider the laws’ constitutionality alone.

When Voy was done discussing his ruling and court was called to a recess, Roske was surrounded by fellow public defenders who celebrated quietly, well aware of the work that’s still ahead.

Roske said it was just the first game of a long season.

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