American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - United States of America v. Blake Brown, Jr. - Third Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
January 16, 2014
  United States of America v. Blake Brown, Jr. - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit Interprets Exception to Sex Offender Registration Statute

Area of Law: The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA)

Issue(s) Presented: Whether the term "years" under an exception to SORNA that exempts certain individuals from submitting identifying information to state and federal sex offender registries is ambiguous.

Brief Summary: Blake Brown, Jr pled guilty to failing to register as a sex offender under SORNA. Under SORNA, "an offense involving consensual sexual conduct is not a sex offense for the purposes of SORNA...if the victim was at least 13 years old and the offender was not more than 4 years older than the victim." The District Court dismissed the indictment, holding that Brown fell under the exception because he was 17 years old, and his victim was 13 years old, at the time of the offense. The Third Circuit vacated the District Court's holding and reinstated the indictment. The court held that the phrase "not more than 4 years older" under the statute should be interpreted as anything in excess of 1,461 days, or 48 months. Because Brown was 52 months older than his victim, he was not exempt from the SORNA registration requirements.

Extended Summary: The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania dismissed the indictment of Blake Brown, Jr for failing to register as a sex offender under The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), 42 U.S.C. § 16901 et seq. Under SORNA, individuals convicted of certain sex crimes are required to submit identifying information to state and federal sex offender registries. It is a violation of SORNA to "knowingly fail to register or update a registration." Brown was charged with failing to register under SORNA in August 2011 when he failed to register after moving from New York to Pennsylvania in October 2010. Brown had been convicted in 2003 for third degree lewd molestation in violation of Florida Statute § 800.04(5). Brown admitted to knowing that he had to register, and pled guilty.

During sentencing, the District Court expressed doubt that Brown was actually a "sex offender" under the statute. Under SORNA, "an offense involving consensual sexual conduct is not a sex offense for the purposes of SORNA...if the victim was at least 13 years old and the offender was not more than 4 years older than the victim." According to the U.S. Probation Office's Presentence Investigation Report, Brown was 17 years old and his victim was 13 years old at the time that they engaged in consensual sexual activity. The District Court therefore decided to withdraw its previous approval of Brown's guilty plea, as he met the "not more than 4 years older" exception to SORNA. The government and Brown stipulated that Brown's "date of birth was exactly four years and four months (52 months) prior to the date of birth of the victim in the offense of Lewd Molestation." However, the District Court held that the SORNA exception is "grievously ambiguous as applies to Brown" and dismissed the indictment. The District Court reasoned that a "colloquial" reading of "years" would render Brown eligible for the exception in the statute since Brown was 17 years old, and the victim was 13 years old, at the time of the incident. Therefore Brown was not "more than 4 years older than the victim," but rather was exactly four years older. The District Court also reasoned that had Congress intended for a strict measurement of age, Congress could have defined the age difference in reference to months.

The government appealed the dismissal and Brown filed a cross-appeal seeking to preserve a variety of issues. The Third Circuit vacated the order dismissing the indictment, holding that term "4 years" in the statute is not ambiguous. The court reasoned that 4 years is 1,461 days or 48 months, and that "more than 4 years" under the statute means anything in excess of 1,461 days. The court also reasoned that interpreting "years" to mean whole years only would lead to strange results in the application of SORNA, as the colloquial method would create alternating windows of time in which the same offense involving the same two participants would sometimes require registration under SORNA and sometimes would not, depending on the time of year the event occurred. The Third Circuit also pointed to the fact that several other state courts count "years" when applying sexual offense statutes by determining the difference in ages by reference to the respective birth states of the individuals. Additionally, Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have interpreted the phrase "more than 4 years older" in the statute to mean more than 1,461 days older. Because Brown was more than 4 years older than his victim at the time of the offense, The Third Circuit vacated the order dismissing the indictment and directed that the indictment be reinstated.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/123952p.pdf

Panel: Circuit Judges Jordan, Vanaskie, and Greenberg

Argument Date: 12/19/2013

Argument Location: Philadelphia

Date of Issued Opinion: 1/15/2014

Docket Number: Nos. 12-3952/4085

Decided: Vacated

Case Alert Author: Larissa Staszkiw

Counsel: Donovan J. Cocas, Esq., Office of United States Attorney, Counsel for the United States of America; Lisa B. Freeland, Esq. and Kimberly R. Brunson, Esq., Office of Federal Public Defender, Counsel for Blake Brown, Jr.

Author of Opinion: Judge Jordan

Circuit: 3rd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 01/16/2014 12:52 PM     3rd Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top