Court nixes South Carolina’s lifelong sex offender registry

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a state law requiring sex offenders to register for life, without prior judicial review, is unconstitutional.

In a unanimous ruling, justices wrote that “requirement that sex offenders must register for life without any opportunity for judicial review violates due process because it is arbitrary and cannot be deemed rationally related to the General Assembly’s stated purpose of protecting the public from those with a high risk of re-offending.”

Justices set a 12-month timeline to implement the ruling, to give state lawmakers time to “correct the deficiency in the statute regarding judicial review.” It will have to come to a vote because it would require a change in state law.

The case stems from a lawsuit originally brought by Dennis Powell, who was arrested in 2008 for criminal solicitation of a minor after authorities said he had graphic online conversations with someone he thought was a 12-year-old girl, but who was actually an undercover officer.

After pleading guilty, Powell was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender, which South Carolina’s statute mandates as a lifelong situation.

(WATCH: Man wanted for failing to register as sex offender arrested after multi-county chase)

South Carolina’s sex offender statute requires biannual registration, in-person at a sheriff’s office, but provides for no periodic review by a judge, a situation the Supreme Court called “the most stringent in the country.”

“The lifetime inclusion of individuals who have a low risk of re-offending renders the registry over-inclusive and dilutes its utility by creating an ever-growing list of registrants that is less effective at protecting the public and meeting the needs of law enforcement,” justices wrote. “There is no evidence in the record that current statistics indicate all sex offenders generally pose a high risk of re-offending.”

Many are listed for crimes like indecent exposure or having sex with a minor only a few years younger than the offender. 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said those aren’t the offenders most people worry about when they hear the words “sex offender.”

“Their mind automatically goes to the worst place. The guy lurking in the bushes by the school, looking at kids, that kind of guy. That kind of guy could still remain on the registry for life, " Brackett said.

There are more than 13,000 people on South Carolina’s registry, with 112 in just one single ZIP code in York County. For some lesser offenses, being placed there can destroy lives. Public defender B.J. Barrowclough have seen his clients face this.

“It impacts their employment, because no one wants to hire a sex offender. It impacts where they can live, because there are certain places they can’t live. I’ve seen clients have to vacate their home or apartment because it’s close to a school or day care,” Barrowclough said.

The court ruled that Powell should be immediately removed from the state’s sex offender registry. Powell had also challenged a portion of the statute that permits the registry to be published online, which the court upheld.

The ruling allows sex offenders to petition to be removed from the registry, as North Carolina and other states already allow. Pedophiles and violent predators could still remain there for life.

Before this week’s ruling, the only way to get your name off the sex offender registry in South Carolina was to have your conviction overturned or be pardoned for the crime.

Attorneys for both Powell and the State Law Enforcement Division did not immediately return text messages seeking comment on the ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.