The short answer is that following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Alaska v. Wright, they are.
For now, at least.
This case revolved around the plaintiff in the Ninth Circuit’s reversal, Wright, who was convicted by an Alaska state court in 2009 of multiple counts of sexual abuse of a minor. The state court in Alaska sentenced him to 14 years in prison, with two of those years suspended. Wright completed the entirety of his sentence five years ago in 2016. As part of completing his sentence, he also completed all of his requirements for parole and probation supervision, leaving only a lifetime registry as a sex offender if he chose to remain in Alaska.
Instead of staying there, Wright chose to move to Tennessee, where he was also obliged by federal law to register as a sex offender. Yet he never did. Because of his failure to register, he was sent to prison in Tennessee in 2017, pled guilty in 2018, and in 2019 the sentence given to him was time served and five years of supervised release.
The issue the Supreme Court reviewed revolves around Wright’s 2018 petition for federal habeas corpus relief in Alaska. Again, this was two full years after he completed the entirety of his sentence for his Alaska crimes. Well, the federal district court dismissed the rights case for lack of jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit reversed and held that his federal conviction for failure to register as a sex offender was based on his Alaska sex offense convictions.
The bigger picture here, and the reason the state of Alaska asked the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit‘s decision, is a person’s ability to challenge under federal law an already served state conviction on the ground that a subsequent federal conviction was predicated upon the earlier state conviction. In far less confusing terms, had the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Ninth Circuit, people convicted of state crimes who have served the entirety of that crime could use federal law (28 U.S. Code § 2254) to challenge the conviction so they wouldn’t have anything attached to it, such as sex offender registry for life.
The Supreme Court showed that the justices were not at all okay with this, and in reversing the Ninth Circuit decision, clearly reinforced the jurisprudential notion that a federal court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear a habeas corpus petition by a person who is no longer in custody pursuant to a decision by a state court.
Joseph Marrone, founder of the Philadelphia law firm Marrone Law Firm, LLC, sees this case as an important one in determining the balance between state and federal responsibility in sentencing matters.
“In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court made it very clear that any appearance of a federal back door to escape a state court judgment is closed. Anyone convicted of a crime by a state court lacks standing to bring a federal habeas claim where that person has completed their state sentence.”
In practice, the Supreme Court did nothing less than close a loophole that would have allowed people who are convicted of and served the entirety of their state crimes to escape both the letter and spirit of the law. The entire point of rules such as lifetime sex offender registry of people who have been convicted of a state crime if this nature is to actually protect other people. Not only does the requirement in this case of lifetime sex offender registry protect people, but it also creates an expectation that may be a deterrent for others – and that is precisely if you commit the crime and do the time, there is the additional burden of registration.
Yet when all is said and done, in reading the Court’s decision in Alaska v. Wright, there remains something unsettling in the language. While the very brief decision of the Court acknowledges that “the Court of Appeals clearly erred,” the more skeptical judicial pundits among us take cold comfort in the final paragraph of the ruling. In expressly stating “We express no view on the other theories Wright advanced before the District Court for meeting the requirements of §2254(a),” we are left to wonder how broad and lasting a decision this might be, especially with a comparatively volatile, activist Court.