Today the Superior Court unanimously ruled in Commonwealth v. Hainesworth that sex offenders who entered into plea agreements before SORNA in order to avoid Megan’s Law sex offender registration requirements cannot have a registration requirement imposed on them despite the retroactivity of SORNA. In 2009, when Megan’s Law was in effect, Deono Hainesworth entered into a plea bargain with the Commonwealth. As part of the plea, the Commonwealth dropped his aggravated indecent assault charge, which was subject to lifetime registration, in exchange for a guilty plea to indecent assault and other charges. It was understood that Hainesworth entered into the plea deal to avoid the registration requirement that aggravated indecent assault carried. When SORNA was enacted in 2012, indecent assault was classified as a Tier II offense which carries with it a 25-year registration requirement. At issue was whether SORNA’s registration requirement applied to Hainesworth and others who pleaded guilty to sex offenses when Megan’s Law was in effect in order to avoid registration.
The Commonwealth argued that SORNA registration is a non-punitive collateral consequence of Hainesworth’s conviction, and as such, Hainesworth is subject to the registration requirements that did not exist at the time that he entered into the plea bargain. Hainesworth contended that this distinction is irrelevant, as the issue is really grounded in contract law. The Superior Court agreed with Hainesworth’s interpretation, finding that since the parties had entered into the plea bargain (which is essentially a contract) with the express understanding that Hainesworth would not have to register as a sex offender, forcing him to now register would violate the plea agreement. As such, Hainesworth and others who, for the purpose of avoiding the registration requirement, pleaded guilty to sex offenses that did not carry the requirement under Megan’s Law but now do under SORNA, cannot be forced to register. The entire text of the opinion can be read here.