It’s Not a Felony to Be Homeless, Wisconsin Supreme Court Holds

As William Dinkins, a Wisconsin sex offender, approached the date of his release from prison, he was obliged by state law to provide an address at which he would be residing upon his release.  The problem is that he did not have a home, and there was no one willing to take him in.  Despite his efforts and those of a social worker to line up a place for him to live, when he missed the deadline to report a post-prison residence, the state prosecuted him under Wisconsin’s sex-offender registration law, which makes it a felony for a sex offender to “knowingly fail[] to comply with any requirement to provide information.”

The trial court found Dinkins guilty as charged and gave him 90 days in jail.

Although framed as a “failure to provide information,” Dinkins was, for all intents and purposes, convicted and punished for being homeless.  Or more precisely, I suppose, he was punished for being a homeless sex offender.  Either way, this seems functionally a status crime, and status crimes are unconstitutional under Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962).

 

Perhaps with an eye to this problem, the state argued that Dinkins could have, and should have, listed a park bench as his residence.

A park bench?  It’s not clear to me how a prisoner reserves a park bench.  (It’s not even clear to me how a non-prisoner reserves a park bench.)  This sounds like an invitation for the prisoner just to make something up.  Is this a setup?  Do we then prosecute the prisoner when he is not at his designated park bench after release?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court wisely rejected the state’s proposal earlier this week in State v. Dinkins, 2012 WI 24.  Invoking the principle that statutes must be interpreted “reasonably, to avoid absurd or unreasonable results,” the court held:

It is unreasonable to think that the legislature intended that a registrant be prosecuted for a Class H felony, which carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison, for failing to provide information which the registrant was unable to provide.  (¶ 49)

The court noted that a contrary interpretation would authorize punishment not only for homelessness, but also for unemployment, because prisoners are required to disclose where they will be working upon release.  (¶ 50)

The dissent worried that the majority’s holding would create an opportunity for dangerous sex offenders simply to disappear after release.  However, the majority observed that another provision of the statute created a safeguard:

¶40 Exercising its authority under this statute, the [Department of Corrections] can require a registrant who is unable to provide an address to report to a local police station upon release. If, upon reporting to the police station, the registrant continues to be unable to provide an address, the DOC can require him to continue reporting to the police station on a regular basis until he is able to do so. Meanwhile, it can require the registrant to provide information about the places he is frequenting.

Of courses, in cases of particular dangerousness, civil commitment also remains available as an option.