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United States v. Bridges, No. 13-4067

Decided: January 27, 2014

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court correctly found defendant’s plea of nolo contendere with adjudication constituted a conviction for the purposes of the Sex Offender Registration Act (“SORNA”) because it resulted in a penal consequence. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss.

On February 17, 1999, Defendant William David Bridges (“Defendant”) entered a plea of nolo contendere in Florida State court to a charge of Attempted Sexual Battery upon a Child under 15 Years of Age. The court entered judgment, ordering that adjudication of guilt be withheld, but directing Defendant to pay court costs and serve two years of probation. As a result of this judgment, Defendant was required to register as a sex offender under Florida law. In 2010, Defendant moved to Virginia, where he was registered as a sex offender. However, in 2011, Virginia authorities discovered Defendant no longer lived at his reported address and that he had not updated his registration.

On appeal, the issue was whether Defendant’s nolo contendere plea to a Florida attempted sexual battery charge, in which adjudication was withheld, qualified as a conviction for purposes of the federal registration requirements.

Congress enacted SORNA in order to protect the public from sex offenders and offenders against children. In order to address the significant number of “missing” sex offenders, SORNA established a comprehensive national system for the registration of sex offenders. SORNA thus requires a sex offender, defined as “an individual who was convicted of a sex offense,” to register in each jurisdiction where he resides. Congress left the statutory term “convicted” undefined and expressly granted authority to the Attorney General to issue guidelines and regulations to interpret and implement SORNA. The Attorney General promulgated The National Guidelines for Sex Offender Registration and Notification (“SMART Guidelines”), which have the force and effect of law. Under these Guidelines, an adult sex offender is “convicted” for SORNA purposes if the sex offender remains subject to penal consequences based on the conviction. The federal registration requirement cannot be avoided simply because a jurisdiction has a procedure under which the convictions of sex offenders in certain categories are referred to as something other than “convictions.” Rather, so long as the sex offender is nevertheless required to serve what amounts to a criminal sentence for the offense, he is “convicted” and falls within the ambit of SORNA’s registration requirements.

Here, the Fourth Circuit held that Defendant was sentenced to a two-year term of probation pursuant to his nolo contendere plea to the attempted sexual battery charge, and he served three days in jail. Defendant conceded that probation is a penal consequence.

In addition, the Court held that the ambiguity in SORNA’s use of the term “convicted” did not rise to the level of grievousness that would warrant application of the rule of lenity.

Full Opinion

– Sarah Bishop