Virginia Sex Offender Registry Parent Barred School Fairfax Loudoun

DOE V. VA. DEP’T OF STATE POLICE; No. 11-1841; 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 7403 (4th Cir. April 12, 2013)

In Doe v. Va. Dep’t of State Police, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a petitioner’s § 1983 procedural due process, substantive due process, and First Amendment claims against her reclassification on the Virginia Sex Offender Registry as a violent carnal offender fifteen years after her conviction for a sexual offense. In striking down Doe’s substantive due process and First Amendment claims, the Court ruled that Doe did not have standing and that the claims were not ripe for consideration. In striking down Doe’s procedural due process claim, the Court relied on Supreme Court precedent holding that inclusion on a Sex Offender Registry for simply having been convicted of an enumerated offense without a hearing does not violate procedural due process.

Virginia Sex Offender Registry Parent Barred From School
Virginia Sex Offender Registry Parent Barred From School

Doe was convicted of carnal knowledge a child without using force in 1993. At the time of the conviction, Doe was placed on the Sex Offender Registry. In 2008, however, the Commonwealth reclassified the offense of carnal knowledge as a “carnally violent offense;” thereby reclassifying Doe as a violent offender. This reclassification brought two detriments. First, Doe could no longer petition to have her name removed from the Virginia Sex Offender Registry. Second, Doe could not set foot on a school campus or at a daycare center, with a few negligible exceptions. Importantly, however, Doe had a statutory right to petition the local circuit court and either the institution board or a daycare facility for access to their campuses. She fatally chose not to pursue this right before filing suit in federal court.

Doe brought a § 1983 action against the Virginia State Police, alleging that the reclassification violated her procedural and substantive due process rights as well as her rights to free association and free exercise of religion. Doe, a mother with school-aged children, alleged that “maintain[ing] the registry with her name and information on it and . . . failing to provide her with a means of petitioning anonymously for access to institution grounds . . . infringed upon her fundamental right to raise and educate her children,” her right to free association with others, and her right to free exercise of religion because all local churches of her denomination had daycare centers. In support of her procedural due process claim, Doe argued that the state police needed to afford her an opportunity to be heard on whether she was currently dangerous before reclassifying her as a violent offender and publishing the status on the public registry. In the Eastern District of Virginia, the district court judge rejected Doe’s claims for lack of standing and ripeness but because neither party had addressed those issues, the district court also alternatively dismissed Doe’s claims on the merits.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling but primarily did so by finding that the claims were not justiciable. Unlike the district court, the Fourth Circuit considered whether Doe had standing to bring her claims. Standing requires a showing of three elements: an actual or imminent injury, fair traceability of that injury to the defendant, and the court’s ability to redress the injury. With regard to Doe’s procedural due process claim, the Court found all three elements of standing were met. Doe had incurred an actual injury because the state police had published her name on the Sex Offender Registry. The injury was traceable to the State Police as they had implemented the legislative imperative to reclassify Doe. Lastly, the court could redress the injury by ruling unconstitutional the law requiring Doe to be reclassified as a violent carnalual offender without procedural due process.

With regard to her substantive due process, associational, and free exercise claims, however, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Doe lacked standing to support them. First, the Court ruled that Doe had not suffered an injury in fact. In coming to this conclusion, the Court relied on the fact that Doe had not pursued the available statutory remedies that carried the possibility of granting her access to the institution property. The relevant statute from the Virginia SOR, Va. Code § 18.2-370.5, allowed Doe to petition the local circuit court and either the institution board or a daycare for access to the campuses. According to the Court of Appeals, because Doe had not petitioned the court, a school board, or a daycare, the decision banning her from the campus was not yet resolved with “finality.” The Court also addressed a more nuanced argument that Doe first articulated on appeal. Specifically, Doe rebranded her injury not as being denied her presence at institutions outright but rather as having the right to petition the institution board for admission anonymously. Doe argued that as a consequence of publicly petitioning the institution board for entry, her children would have been heavily ridiculed. The Court exhibited little patience for Doe’s “shifting characterization” of her injury and refused to give it full consideration.

In addressing the other two prongs of the standing analysis, the Court found that Doe had failed to show that her alleged injury was traceable to the Virginia State Police and that the Court had the ability to offer redress for it. The Court made both findings for the same reason that the Court had found that no cognizable injury occurred: Doe’s failure to petition the circuit court, the institution board, or even a daycare for an exemption. The Court reasoned that because the court, the institution board, or a daycare could offer relief, the alleged injury was not necessarily traceable to the State Police without a petition to those third-parties. Similarly, the Court concluded that the effect of any “action” the Court may take was “purely speculative” due to the fact that Doe had not yet pursued the other avenues of redress.

The Court next considered whether Doe’s claims were ripe for judicial consideration. The Court again held that procedural due process claim could be addressed. The issue was ripe because Doe had already been reclassified and publicized as a violent sex offender on the Virginia SOR. As with the standing issue, however, the Court decided that Doe’s substantive claims were not justiciable. The Court held that the claims were not ripe because existing third parties that could address the injury, specifically the circuit court, the institution board, and a daycare center had not yet acted; therefore, the alleged harm to Doe was too speculative for consideration. The Court also that the harm caused by the delay of Doe first having to petition these third parties was not sufficient to expedite federal review.

Because all of Doe’s substantive claims were dismissed by the Court for lack of standing and ripeness, the only issue that the Court of Appeals addressed on the merits was Doe’s claim that her reclassification as a violent sex offender without a hearing as to her dangerousness violated her procedural due process rights. Relying on Conn. Dep’t of Pub. Safety v. Doe, 538 U.S. 1 (2003), the Fourth Circuit summarily dismissed this claim. The Court observed that the legislature had chosen to reclassify offenders based on the mere fact of whether they were convicted of a carnally violent offense, not by assessing their current threat to society. The Court reasoned that because Doe had been afforded procedural due process in the proceeding leading to her initial conviction, requiring another procedure for her reclassification would be a “bootless exercise.”

In sum, Doe represents a cautionary tale for those seeking § 1983 relief in the Fourth Circuit when there remains a possible avenue of state relief. While the majority in Doe would not likely concede that the decision fully incorporates the doctrine of exhaustion of state administrative remedies into principles of standing and ripeness, Doe certainly blurs the line between the two. The effect of this line blurring will likely be fewer plaintiffs bringing § 1983 actions in federal court when any state avenues of relief remain available. When deciding whether to file such an action in state or federal court, prudent practitioners would be wise to consider fully exhausting state avenues of redress before filing in federal court. While more plaintiffs deciding to exhaust state remedies may preserve federal resources and reinforce notions of federalism, such decisions will also delay justice for some plaintiffs whose constitutional protections have been violated and increase the cost of their pursuit of relief.

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These summaries are provided by the SRIS Law Group. They represent the firm’s unofficial views of the Justices’ opinions. The original opinions should be consulted for their authoritative content. 

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