Very interesting decision from the 9th Circuit this morning in Doe v. Harris (PDF) where it asks the California Supreme Court to determine “Whether, under California law, the default rule of contract interpretation is (a) that the law in effect at the time of a plea agreement binds the parties, or (b) that the terms of a plea agreement may be affected by changes in law.” When Mr. Doe (who is proceeding anonymously for reasons that will soon be obvious) pled guilty in 1991 to one count of committing a lewd act upon a minor, California Penal Code Section 290 required that he register with law enforcement, but that his registration records would not be accessible to anyone who wasn’t a peace officer. Since he avoided any jail time and got five felonies dropped, this doubtlessly seemed like a good deal.
….And then “Megan’s Law” and its progeny on the state and federal level, which require states to disclose parts or all of a registered sex offender’s data to the public, were passed. Worse for Mr. Doe and persons in his situation, Megans Law and its progeny are retroactive, sweeping thousands of people who pled guilty to registrable offenses within their nets of disclosure even though their pleas pre-dated the law.
When Mr. Doe sued to block disclosure of his information, the District Court found that since neither the People nor Mr. Doe’s attorneys made any reservation of rights as to future changes to PC 290, the parties must have based the agreement on the law as it existed in 1991 pre-Megan’s law and therefore blocked disclosure. The State appealed, leading to today’s certification question.
If the Ninth Circuit upholds the District Court, it could help thousands of people obtain relief from the retroactive effects of ever-stricter registration laws. Stay tuned!