State Police: More sex offenders are declaring homelessness to avoid registration

Last year, we reported about a Michigan Court of Appeals decision in People v Dowdy, in which the court held that homeless sex offenders didn’t have to register under SORA because they had no “domicile.”

Since the decision, the Michigan State Police has found that some sex offenders have used the case as a loophole to avoid registration and reporting: they are declaring themselves homeless. [Grand Rapids Press].

It’s no coincidence that the number of sex offenders who say they’re homeless has jumped 62 percent since the Michigan Court of Appeals in February ruled homeless sex criminals don’t have to register with the state, said Michigan State Police Sgt. Chris Hawkins.

"I just don’t think that’s coincidental," said Hawkins, a legislative liaison for the state police. "People are going to use homelessness as some sort of guise."

In some cases, police have found the declaration of homeless to be, eh, not up-to-date.

Grand Rapids Police Officer John Wetzel said his department recently issued an arrest warrant for a sex offender who said he was homeless but was instead living at a home in Benton Harbor.

A bill has passed the Michigan Senate that would require a homeless sex offender to register a regular location they can be found – whether as a shelter at which they regularly stay or an intersection – and update that within 10 days of moving further than a half-mile of that location. The bill is still pending in the House.

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Michigan Senate passes fix for homeless sex offender registry

In February, the Michigan Court of Appeals’ said homeless people couldn’t register under the Sex Offender Registry Act (see People v Dowdy, analysis here). The Michigan Senate has passed a bill to rectify the situation:

LANSING (AP) — Homeless sex offenders would be required to notify police when they change where they are staying under legislation approved by the Michigan Senate.

The legislation unanimously approved Thursday next goes to the House. It would establish registry reporting and notification requirements for homeless people who are convicted sex offenders. They would have to report their address as a homeless shelter or the nearest intersection where they regularly sleep.

The bills come in response to a recent Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that a homeless sex offender shouldn’t be punished for not registering an address or giving his whereabouts to law enforcement. The court’s reasoning was that a homeless person doesn’t have what is considered a residence.

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In their opinions

[T]he concepts of habitually and regularity are antithetical to the circumstances of homelessness. If there is anything “habitual” to the sleeping arrangements of the homeless, it is that it is customary for them not to have the security of a customary place of lodging. If there is anything “regular” about the place where a homeless person lives, it is that it is not within a home.

– The Michigan Court of Appeals, explaining to the Ingham County prosecutor’s office why a homeless defendant can’t be charged with failing to comply with the Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA), MCL 28.721 et seq.

It seems fairly straightforward. SORA requires sex offenders to register their residential addresses, which are then published on a public Web site so you can see if one of them lives in your neighborhood.

In People v. Dowdy (On Remand) (published per curiam), Court of Appeals Judges Jane M. Beckering, Jane E. Markey and Stephen L. Borrello observed

The plain language of the statute employed by the Legislature here says the term “residence” refers to a place, a dwelling, an abode, where an individual has a “regular place of lodging.”

A “lodging” is defined to be “[a] place to live,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1996), or “accommodations in a house, esp. in rooms for rent,”’ Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1997).

The provisional location where a homeless person happens to spend the night does not fall within the ambit of these definitions.

A homeless person is not provided an accommodation by another as a place to habitually sleep or store personal items.

SORA is a “wise” idea, said the panel.

But the Legislature simply did not make provisions for convicted sex offenders to register an address when they don’t have one, and there’s no way to torture the statute to make it say otherwise.