Judge says PA SORNA Overbroad & Unconstitutional in Chester County

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[8/23/22] NEW FREEDOM, Pa. – Today, Chester County Court Judge Allison Bell Royer ruled that Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act is unconstitutional in Commonwealth v. George Torsilieri.

“PARSOL and our affiliates across the country have long advocated against sex offender registries due to their punitive nature and ineffectiveness. Research indicates that most sexual offenses are committed by first-time offenders,” said PARSOL Executive Director Theresa Robertson, Ph.D., “We also believe the indefeasible right to reputation, as guaranteed in the Pennsylvania Constitution, should prohibit registries that are too often used to harass citizens.”

In the 28-page opinion, Judge Bell Royer agreed, writing: “The bottom line, as the defense experts have demonstrated, is that 80% to 95% of all sex offenders will not re-offend.” and “(SORNA) encroaches upon a person’s fundamental right to reputation under Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

On June 16, 2020, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania remanded the case of Commonwealth v. George Torsilieri to the Court of Common Pleas in Chester County. 

“At the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (SCOPA) level, the Commonwealth was unable to substantiate SORNA’s presumption that ‘all sex offenders pose a high risk of sexually reoffending’ and therefore able to be imposed as part of criminal sentencing, so it sent the case back to the lower court for this ruling,” according to Robertson. “We are thrilled by Judge Royer’s decision and grateful to Mr. Torsilieri’s legal team for its diligence and the robust research presented by the expert witnesses.”

Judge Royer’s ruling also states that “[SORNA] does not function as intended and is not effective at promoting public safety. It diverts resources away from offenders who could most benefit from them. Finally, SORNA catches in its net offenders who have committed crimes with no sexual component to them. It is unconstitutionally overbroad and excessive.  We find that SORNA’s registration and notification provisions are punitive in effect, overriding the Legislature’s attempted creation of a civil regulatory scheme.”

In addition, the ruling states that SORNA “results in a criminal sentence in excess of the statutory maximums; violates Federal and State proscriptions against cruel and unusual punishment; and breaches the separation of powers doctrine.”

“We see this as a big step toward ensuring the rights and dignity of all Pennsylvanians by shifting resources toward the promotion of legislative, policy, and practical applications that will, through evidence-based measures, actually protect citizens from sexual harm,” added Robertson.  “While the long-term effects of today’s decision are uncertain, and may result in further action by SCOPA, it nonetheless is a significant finding that coincides with PARSOL’s mission.”

With a population of 521,980 (2020), Chester County, Pennsylvania has the seventh largest population of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Bordering Philadelphia, it is best known for housing the American Revolutionary War encampment Valley Forge where George Washington’s army housed and trained in 1777-78. There are currently 191 Chester County residents on Megan’s Law List. 

A copy of Judge Royer’s ruling can be found here: Commonwealth v. Torsilieri – Aug 2022 Ruling

PARSOL’s First Thoughts on this Ruling

Note: The information provided in this video is based on what we know as of 8/25/22 and may have changed by the time you view it.

Frequently Asked Questions

NOTE: PARSOL does not provide legal services or advice. These answers are based on the information that was available at the time of publication and may be outdated as more information is released. 

SORNA remains in effect as the case is still active. The fate of SORNA lies in SCOPA’s decision.
As there are many ways this can go, we will not know its overall effects until SCOPA makes a decision.
The Commonwealth needs not to appeal as the case will automatically go back to SCOPA. SCOPA remanded the case; they asked for clarifications on the expert testimony through an evidentiary hearing. We believe both parties may only need to file reply briefs as they do not need to refile.
The ruling definitely applies in Chester County and, in theory, to the entire state. However, it is likely that no district attorney or attorney general will allow a Court of Common Pleas judge a final say on such a big issue.
The ruling directly references and is based on provisions in the Pennsylvania state constitution and applies to the specific language contained in that document. Different states have different state constitutions, so it is best to check with attorneys in the other state in question to see how this ruling might be applied elsewhere.
PARSOL is not legal counsel and provides no legal services. We advise that you check with your attorney.
Probably not if SCOPA rules that SORNA is facially unconstitutional. It depends on how SCOPA rules.
No, the only statewide courts in Pennsylvania are the Supreme and Superior Courts of PA. However, even though a common pleas court is not “statewide”, its effects can be statewide if left at the common pleas level.
Any judge can rule a law unconstitutional, as settling constitutional issues is part of their duties.

Author

  • John Dawe is founder of RecoveryBehindBars.com who uses his personal experience as a person who is both a victim and perpetrator of sexual offenses to help others live healthy and productive lives. He is is a professional writer, recovery coach, and fan of treatment as prevention.

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