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From registry to life sentence: Has Tennessee's sex offender registry gone too far?

Posted at 2:58 PM, Aug 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-15 19:36:26-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Attorneys have called for a change to the Tennessee sex offender registry they said created an unconstitutional punishment as legislators added more restrictions each year.

Thomas has lived in Nashville almost all his life, but he’s rarely seen beyond work and the occasional grocery store run.

Those trips are usually done within 15 minutes of the store closing. Thomas seems to think it’s safer that way, so for that reason, NewsChannel 5 Investigates will stick with first names.

It’s life as he’s known it for years — widowed in his 60s and led by faith. While faith may have seen him through tough times, he said it’s family that’s given him something to live for.

“I’m trying to get to know my kids so I get to know my grandkids, but my past was standing in the way,” Thomas said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates doesn't often hear from people like Thomas, because once you find out he’s been on the sex offender registry almost as long as it’s been around, we understand he’s not the easiest person to want to relate to.

But imagine this, being convicted of a crime, given a punishment for that crime, and having that punishment change year after year.

“I get frustrated, believe that and it’s a hurting feeling. It makes me cry. It throws me back to when I first got charged with this,” Thomas said.

Thomas was accused of rape by a now deceased family friend 27 years ago in 1995. They were neighbors in Nashville at the time. Now Thomas will tell you he’s innocent, which NewsChannel 5 Investigates isn't trying to prove or ask you to believe.

What NewsChannel 5 Investigates knows is that Thomas pleaded guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. He had prior convictions and was advised by his public defender that a jury would likely not give him a chance. The trouble is that nothing in the transcript from his plea hearing mentioned anything about the sex offender registry. You can make the argument that the registry was only a couple of years old at the time, so it wasn’t on the mind of attorneys and the judge, but Thomas says that’s no excuse.

“As God as my witness, that was never told to me. If he (the defense attorney) had told me that, I would’ve said no. I’m not going to take this,” Thomas said.

At the time Thomas was told to report once a year, pay an annual fee, and tell the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation where he lived, what he drove, and where he worked.

He couldn’t live near a park, a school, or anywhere children could reasonably be, even though his crime had nothing to do with children.

The registry at the time was written so Thomas could appeal to take his name off the list 10 years after he had completed his full sentence, which would have been 2014. So why is Thomas still on the list in 2022? Because Tennessee lawmakers made sure he would be there for life.

Nashville defense attorney David Raybin has at least three cases where he argues his clients should be taken off the registry because lawmakers piled on more penalties after they were already convicted.

“The Constitution says you cannot enact what’s known as an Ex Post Facto law. You cannot make it illegal to do something today that you’ve already done two years ago,” Raybin said.

There were at least 16 changes between the 1994 Sex Offender Registry Act and what took place in 2003. Each change often meant another restriction for those on the registry to the point where lawmakers realized there were so many changes, that it was better to write a new registry.

There were at least 20 more restrictions added to this new registry up until 2015.

“That’s not fair. You’re changing the rules after you’ve started to play the game,” Raybin said.

Not only was the registry now open to the public, but some people like Thomas now had their designations changed from sex offender to “violent sex offender.” This was given to those convicted of more serious charges like rape and aggravated sexual assault.

This meant now having to report four times a year, as opposed to one. The annual fee more than doubled over time and failure to pay or report within 48 hours meant a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

There was no working or living within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare or park. Most importantly for Thomas, this new label meant he could no longer petition to remove his name from the registry as long as he lived.

“More and more courts are saying, 'wait a minute. We’ve gone beyond just mere registration,'” Raybin said.

Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ordered two Tennessee men to be removed from the registry because the court said all these changes created an unconstitutional punishment.

Another man sued the state of Tennessee a month later after being forced into Tennessee’s registry for a 1993 conviction in Illinois. Records showed he already completed his full sentence before moving to Tennessee but had to register as a sex offender in Tennessee anyway.

You may not even be on the registry any longer in that other state, but Raybin says the rules in Tennessee say you must still register and that may land you on our registry for life.

Raybin is calling for an overhaul of the system by giving the courts more discretion to decide how long someone should be on the registry. As opposed to relying on TBI to make blanket determinations, he says a judge is better suited to look at someone’s case and decide from there.

Right now, there’s virtually no room for someone to make their case once they’ve been labeled a sex offender without going the route of a costly lawsuit. Dozens of registered sex offenders have filed lawsuits against the state of Tennessee because they say their punishment was unconstitutional.

Thomas is hesitant to take such an expensive leap but knows it’s his best chance at moving on with a life worth living and one spent with the people he loves.

“It’s been over 20 years for me just to get somebody to even listen to this. God put people in places at the right time. When the Lord tells you to wait and be patient, that’s what I do. That’s the only thing I have,” Thomas said.