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Taking a tough stance on sex crimes, the California Supreme Court held Monday that it’s not cruel and unusual punishment to require lifelong sex-offender registration for people convicted of certain misdemeanors. The unanimous ruling voids a 21-year-old ruling by the Rose Bird court and leaves the door open for legislation that could greatly broaden the kind of crimes requiring registration. “Here you have the court giving great deference to the Legislature’s conclusion that certain offenders are recidivists,” Michael McMahon, a constitutional scholar in Ventura, Calif., said Monday. The case was filed by Leon Alva, a Los Angeles County man convicted of possessing child pornography, a sex-related misdemeanor. Alva argued that lifetime registration for his crime violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The high court disagreed, saying that sex-offender registration is a legitimate regulatory measure, not punishment, and, therefore, is outside the scope of the Eighth Amendment ban. But the court went further, suggesting that lifelong registration for misdemeanors such as lewd conduct and solicitations would not violate the Constitution. “By providing for the collection of information about the identity and whereabouts of convicted sex offenders, the statute simply makes it harder for such persons to re-offend without getting caught,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote. “If deterrence is a natural, probable and even purposeful consequence of this regulatory scheme, that does not make it punitive.” In reaching its conclusion, the high court overruled In re Reed, 33 Cal.3d 914, a 1983 Bird court ruling that said lifelong sex-offender registration for misdemeanor lewd conduct and solicitation violated the Eighth Amendment. The state Legislature followed up in 1985, removing that law from the statute books. Monday’s ruling leaves the possibility that legislators could revive that law. “The Legislature,” Baxter wrote, “must have regulatory leeway to deal with the serious problem of recidivist sex offenses.” McMahon, a past president of the California Public Defenders Association, said that represents a shift in the balance of power between the judicial and legislative branches in that the court is saying it will not weigh in if the Legislature comes up with a non-punitive regulatory scheme to register those who commit lewd acts. He also said the ruling would be disheartening for many in the gay community — which has been disproportionately targeted by such laws — because rulings such as Reed came down at a time of growing awareness that good people were facing lifetime humiliation for minor offenses. McMahon noted the 1998 arrest of rock singer George Michael on a charge of misdemeanor lewd conduct in a Beverly Hills, Calif., public restroom. Under the old laws, he would have had to register for life as a sex offender, McMahon said, and Monday’s ruling revives that possibility for others in the future. The court, however, did not address the issue of public disclosure. While Alva and others will have to register as sex offenders for life, the ruling does not permit law enforcement officials to release any information about them to the public. Alva’s lawyer, Beverly Hills solo practitioner Steven Flowers, could not be reached for comment. Neither could Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney Candice Horikawa. The ruling is In re Alva, 04 C.D.O.S. 5720.

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