States Can’t Make Up New Laws to Punish Old Conduct Just Because They Call Them “Civil”

Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall … pass any … Ex Post Facto law.” The Ex Post Facto Clause was incorporated into the Constitution to prohibit states from enacting retrospective legislation, which the Framers believed to be inherently unfair and contrary to the principles of limited, constitutional government. Despite the Framers’ clear aversion to retrospective lawmaking, the Supreme Court has since adopted the view that states are uninhibited from enacting retroactive civil penalties. So long as a retrospective law contains a discernable legislative purpose and a “civil” label, retroactive application will not run afoul of the Ex Post Facto Clause. Consequently, states have imposed increasingly burdensome retroactive penalties on convicted sex offenders under the guise of civil regulatory laws. Even after offenders have paid their debts to society, they continue to face excessive registration requirements and other onerous civil penalties. 

Back in 2004, 19-year-old Anthony Bethea was convicted of six counts of sexual activity arising from non-forcible, consensual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. He pled guilty and agreed to be sentenced to up to 48 months of imprisonment, complete a sex offender treatment program, and register as a sex offender for 10 years. He successfully completed the treatment program in 2006 and his period of probation in 2007. Beginning in 2006, however, North Carolina drastically transformed its sex offender statute, adding a laundry list of additional burdens on previously convicted sex offenders. Today, Bethea is subject to numerous restrictions that did not exist at the time of his plea agreement, such as limitations on where he can go, where he can live, and what jobs he can hold. Perhaps worst of all, the new restrictions have prevented him from being a father to his children. Due to his continued registration, Bethea has been forced to miss his son’s graduation ceremonies, parent-teacher conferences, and school field trips. Bethea should have been off the registry four years ago, but North Carolina retroactively lengthened his registration period from 10 to 30 years.

In 2014, 10 years after he registered, Bethea petitioned the North Carolina courts to be removed from the registry. He argued that retroactively applying the statutory provisions enacted after Bethea’s conviction violated the Ex Post Facto Clause. Although the court found that Bethea was in no way a threat to public safety, his petition was denied. On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the state’s sex offender statute was civil, rather than punitive, and thus did not constitute a violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause. The North Carolina Supreme Court denied review and Bethea has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take his case.

Cato has filed an amicus brief supporting that petition, arguing that the Court must return to an original understanding of the Ex Post Facto Clause guided by its twin historical aims: to prevent vindictive legislation targeted at unpopular groups and provide sufficient notice of the consequences in place. Without a principled foundation in original meaning and historic purpose, the Court’s multi-factor ex post facto analysis has come to rest on shaky ground, supplying unimpeded deference to legislative intent. The Court’s continued unwillingness to invalidate statutes for their retroactive punitive effect has given states a perverse incentive to enact increasingly burdensome civil penalties that alter the legal consequences of previously committed conduct without constitutional accountability.

The Supreme Court should take up Bethea v. North Carolina and eaffirm that the Constitution’s prohibition against ex post facto lawmaking forbids states from skirting constitutional scrutiny by simply labelling increasingly burdensome retrospective penalties as “civil” regulatory laws.