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Texas Requires Convict to Register as Sex Offender After Serving His Time for Car Theft, No Sex Crime Committed.

by Jo Ellen Nott

On September 16, 2022, attorneys from the Civil Rights Clinic of the Georgetown University Law Center filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against Governor Greg Abbott (R) and the Texas Department of Safety in the case of Rohn M. Weatherly. Texas retroactively adjusted Weatherly’s sentence four years after conviction to require compulsory registration as a sex offender even though his crime did not include a sexual offense. 

Weatherly has a history of methamphetamine dependence and psychosis. At the time of the original offense in 2014, he was living in the Drummer’s Inn Motel as was the neighbor whose car he stole. As Cheyla Palmer returned home one day, Weatherly demanded she take him to his aunt’s house. A friend of Palmer tried to restrain Weatherly, but Weatherly succeeded in commandeering Palmer’s vehicle without realizing her four-year-old daughter was in the back seat.  

Two hours later, Weatherly returned to the motel, accompanied by his aunt, his uncle, and the child. Weatherly was arrested and charged with kidnapping, unlawful restraint, unauthorized use of a vehicle, and theft. In October 2015, Weatherly pleaded guilty to unlawful restraint of a child and to theft of property valued between $1,500 and $20,000 after having been found competent to stand trial despite his psychosis. At the January 2016 sentencing, Weatherly received 15 years.

His first appeal challenged the initial finding of his competence, but the court rejected that claim and upheld his prison sentence, which he had understood and accepted when he entered his plea. Years after Weatherly entered his plea, the trial court decided that, because the child in the back seat was a minor, Texas’s Sex Offender Registration Program (“SORP”) applied to the case. Texas law provides broad and sweeping definitions of sex offenders, including those who commit certain nonsexual crimes against anybody “under 17 years of age.” Weatherly’s sentence was retroactively adjusted to include that his name appear on the sex offender registry for 10 years after his release. 

He appealed once again. Justice Mike Wallach of the Second Appellate District of Texas responded in his dissenting memorandum that the SORP registration requirements do not apply to the Weatherly. Wallach argued that requiring Weatherly to register for a publicly available status for a non-sexual crime “bears no rational relationship to the stated government interest of tracking sex offenders and preventing their recidivism.” Wallach wrote the dissenting opinion, but the majority found it had no jurisdiction to intervene in Weatherly’s case. 

Fortunately for Weatherly, the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic became his advocate.  The clinic’s lawyers argue in their federal case that such broad use of sex-offender registries is unconstitutional. They claim that 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 infringes equal protection guarantees.

It would serve the citizenry to push back against unjust sex-offender registry orders that abuse individual rights.  The American libertarian monthly magazine Reason decries the fact “that sex-offender registries have lost their original purpose and have 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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