A decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reduce the Megan’s Law registration period for a convicted Lancaster sex offender could have far-reaching implications for people convicted of similar crimes in the state.
That’s according to the Lancaster County district attorney’s office after Monday’s ruling that allows 25-year-old Thomas Lutz-Morrison to register under Megan’s Law for 15 years instead of for life as was previously ordered by a county judge and affirmed by the state Superior Court.
“This will impact Megan’s Law registration requirements of lower-tier sex abuse convictions, commonly child pornography cases, but also several other offenses,” district attorney spokesman Brett Hambright said Thursday.
Hambright said the ruling “will set precedent for future cases across the state, and could be applied retroactively to cases already prosecuted.”
Lutz-Morrison was charged in August 2012 with 77 separate counts of possessing child pornography.
He pleaded guilty the following year to three counts, in a plea bargain arranged by the district attorney’s office. He was sentenced to three years probation.
Pennsylvania law requires individuals convicted of two or more sex offenses to register under Megan’s Law for life, the district attorney’s office noted in a statement Thursday.
The state Supreme Court has applied a different interpretation of the law to this case.
In a 4-2 decision, the high court ruled the “two or more” convictions must be for separate acts, and that the sex offender must have already been sentenced for one sex offense before he was sentenced for a subsequent crime.
Lutz-Morrison’s conviction stems from a single search and seizure of electronics containing child pornography.
“We argued the language of the law doesn’t include a required time lapse between convictions,” Hambright said. “So, our stance is without that in the language the lifetime registration order should have stood.”
The state Superior Court affirmed the county court’s decision in 2014, finding that multiple convictions can come from a single criminal docket.
But the state Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that a person must be convicted and sentenced for one offense — and have an opportunity to reform — before committing another crime that would be considered a second offense and require lifetime registration.
An offender must have a chance to rehabilitate before being penalized with a second offense, the high court found.
“We do not dispute the Commonwealth’s argument that each image of child pornography possessed represents a separate, independent crime,” state Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dougherty wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
However, Dougherty wrote, the court views registration as a distinct issue.
“As such, the statute requires an act, a conviction, and a subsequent act to trigger lifetime registration for multiple offenses,” he concluded.
In a dissenting opinion, state Supreme Court Justice Debra McCloskey Todd said the law “clearly and unambiguously provides that any individual who accrues multiple convictions … is subject to lifetime registration as a sexual offender,” regardless of when those offenses occurred.
Although it’s not clear how many cases might be affected, Hambright said in an email Thursday that each case would have to be considered individually, based on new appeals filed on behalf of convicted sex offenders.
The high court’s decision will not otherwise affect the convictions or sentences of sex offenders, Hambright said.
County Judge Margaret C. Miller, who sentenced Lutz-Morrison in 2013, could not immediately be reached for comment on the new ruling.