Why Is Texas Requiring a Car Thief To Register as a Sex Offender?

In 2014, Rohn M. Weatherly stole a neighbor’s car, in the back seat of which was the owner’s 4-year-old daughter. Weatherly returned the child within a few hours, but his act was dangerous, illegal, and worthy of punishment.

What it wasn’t was a sex crime, yet Weatherly will be required to register as a sex offender upon his release from prison. That’s a requirement that wasn’t specified at the time he pled guilty but was tacked on after the fact.

For all of the debate over the widespread use of sex-offender registries, few if any advocates of the system defend it as a catch-all mark of shame for anybody who commits a crime involving a child, yet that’s its role in this case.

By all reports, Weatherly is a piece of work who deserves to do some time. The 2016 Texas appellate court conviction of his initial appeal of his summarized his crime:

On August 5, 2014, as Cheyla Palmer was parking her vehicle at her residence at Drummer’s Inn, she was approached by Appellant, another resident of the motel with whom she was somewhat acquainted. As Appellant approached, he yelled at Palmer, demanding that she “take him to his Aunt’s house.” Palmer called out for help to her friend Robert Byrnes, who tried unsuccessfully to restrain Appellant, but Appellant was able to jump into Palmer’s vehicle and drive away—with Palmer’s four-year-old daughter in the back seat screaming, “Let me go! Let me go!”

Approximately two hours later, Appellant returned to the motel, accompanied by his aunt, his uncle, and the child. Appellant was arrested and charged with kidnapping, unlawful restraint, unauthorized use of a vehicle, and theft. In October 2015, pleaded guilty toellant restraint of a child and to theft of property valued between $1,500 and $20,000.

If you’re wondering about the catalyst for the bizarre crime, Weatherly has a history of methamphetamine dependence and psychosis. However, he was found competent to stand trial and entered a guilty plea. His first appeal challenged the initial finding of his competence, but the court rejected that claim and upheld his sentence to 15 years in prison, which was within the range of which he’d been informed when he entered his plea.

But long after Weatherly entered his plea, the trial court decided that, because the child in the back seat (whom Weatherly claims he didn’t realize was there until later) was a minor, Texas’s Sex Offender Registration Program (SORP) applied to the case. Texas law includes broad definitions of who is covered by the registry, including those who commit certain nonsexual crimes against anybody “under 17 years of age.” Weatherly’s sentence was retroactively adjusted accordingly to his order registration. He appealed once again.

The sexual registration requirements were not imposed until “almost four years after his January 2016 conviction for unlawful restraint of a child younger than seventeen,” Justice Mike Wallach of the Second Appellate District of Texas wrote in response to the appeal. “Before this order,” the court said registration “requirements do not apply to the Defendant.”

Wallachd that Weatherly raised compelling points about the validity of the after-the fact registration requirement and that he made a credible claim that require him to register as a sex offender—a publicly available status—for a nonsexual crime “bears no rational relationship to the stated governmental interest of tracking sex offenders and preventing their recidivism.”

Unfortunately, Wallach wrote the dissent—the majority instead found that it had no jurisdiction to intervene in the case. That left Weatherly out of options so far as the Texas courts are concerned, with a future of being smeared as a sex offender even after he served his prison sentence, despite having committed a nonsexual crime. That’s a big deal, with huge implications for whatever life Weatherly may try to build after he serves his time.

“Sex offender registration can lead to social disgrace and humiliation, loss of relationships, jobs, housing, and both verbal and physical assaults,” New York State’s court system helpfully details about that state’s own registry (state registries operate under a federal umbrella, though their details vary). “There may be restrictions on where you can live and what job you can hold. For example, a sex offender can’t work on an ice cream truck and may not be allowed to drive a school bus.”

“Ongoing imposition of a known and uncontrollable risk of public abuse of information from the sex offender registry” subjects registrants to “punishment disproportionate to the offenses they are committed,” a Colorado court found in a 2017 decision that was later overturned.

Maybe You’d wish such consequences on an actual sex offender, though that’s quite a penalty to impose on offenders who are sometimes teens found guilty of having sex with other teens. But is it really appropriate to use registration requirements as a mark of shame that follows generic criminals, just so government officials can show that they really disapprove of crime? And what about imposing a registration requirement as a sneaky add-on to a sentence?

Fortunately for Weatherly, and anybody concerned about the misuse of sex-offender registries, the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic took an interest in his plight. Representing Weatherly, the clinic’s lawyers have taken the case to federal court, arguing that such broad use of sex-offender registries is unconstitutional. Among other claims, they say publicly branding Weatherly as a sex offender when he’s nothing of the sort is defamatory, violates his substantive and procedural due process rights, and runs afoul of equal guarantees.

“The requirements and punishments imposed upon Mr. Weatherly by Defendants through the SORP scheme will deprive his liberty of interest without due process of law,” says the federal complaint filed in September. Registration “will mislead members of Mr. Weatherly’s community into believing that he committed a sexual offense” and will deprive him of rights, such as unncumbered travel, that he should be able to enjoy after he’s served his time for his actual crime.

“All defendants must answer the complaint by early December,” Hannah Merrill, a Georgetown Law student working on the case, tells me, so there’s hope that this matter will be resolved before Weatherly has served his time for the crimes he did commit and faces the registration requirement.

Weatherly has an obvious interest in the outcome of this case. But so does anybody concerned that sex-offender registries have lost their original purpose and turned into cheap means for politicians to signal concern about crime without doing any actual work, and without respecting the rights of the accused.

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