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Ohio Supreme Court To Decide If Sex Offender Label Can Be Unconstitutional Punishment

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The Ohio Supreme Court will weigh in on the state's mandatory punishment for a 21 year old man convicted after what he said was a consensual sexual relationship with a 15 year old girl. 

At issue is whether labeling him as a sex offender could be considered "cruel and unusual punishment", which is constitutionally prohibited. And whatever the eventual ruling is, the court’s decision will be the first of its kind in the country. Arguments in the case were held Tuesday. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.

Travis Blankenship of Clark County had sex twice with a 15 year old girl in 2011. In 2012, the 21 year old was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. He spent 12 days in jail and, as required by law, he was labeled a sex offender. But his attorney Katherine Ross Kinzie told the court while the law says he’s a sex offender, a psychologist who interviewed him for a pre-sentencing report determined he isn’t, and that he’s unlikely to reoffend. So Ross-Kinzie said the mandatory sentence he was given is unconstitutional, and the trial judge should have had to sentence him that way.

“When the record demonstrates that an individual is not a sex offender, the trial court should be able to consider that individual’s Eighth Amendment argument and determine if punishing him as a sex offender would be grossly disproportionate to the nature of the offense and the character of the offender, and therefore a violation of his constitutional rights,” Ross-Kinzie said.

And Ross-Kinzie said it’s not just the “scarlet letter” of the sex offender label, “I believe it’s all of it together.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor jumped in. “All the restrictions, all the places you can live, all the activity you can pursue, all the jobs that you can potentially be available to, apply to or be eligible for – this is all part of your argument, correct?” O’Connor asked. Ross-Kinzie replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

But Clark County Assistant Prosecutor Ryan Saunders says Blankenship pleaded guilty, and therefore the label and its requirements are appropriate.

But Justice Paul Pfeifer had questions. “This guy’s going to explain to his kids, ‘I’m a registered sex offender, and you may get teased about that at school. Would that be one of the normal consequences of this law?” Pfeifer asked.

Saunders responded, “That could possibly occur. Mr. Blankenship committed a crime. He was 21. He had sex with a 15 year old. And as part of that, he’s a sex offender.”

Saunders cited several other cases where defendants were ordered to serve long periods in prison for crimes that many would consider much less serious, but stated that mandatory rules are in place for a reason – for instance, when there’s a significant age gap between an offender and a victim. “If the victim is 12 years and 364 days, and the defendant is 21 years old, that’s rape – that’s lifetime in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years,” Saunders said. “My point in saying this is that the General Assembly has to make bright-line tests, especially for sex offenses. This case does not reach the level of cruel and unusual punishment. It’s not overly burdensome.” 

Ohio is one of 17 states that enacted the mandatory sex offender label after passage of the federal law Adam Walsh Law in 2006. But no other state has considered a case regarding the sex offender label. So no matter the ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court will make history when it issues it, most likely later this year.