Travis Blankenship v. State of Ohio, Case no. 2014-0363
Second District Court of Appeals (Clark County)
ISSUE: Do the mandatory sex-offender classifications in Ohio law constitute cruel and unusual punishment if the classification is grossly disproportionate to the nature of the offense and the character of the offender?
Travis Blankenship, 21, and a 15-year-old girl first met through a web site for sharing user-created content. Blankenship told the girl his age, and she informed him she was 15. In 2011, they began a sexual relationship, and the teen later reported that the sex was consensual.
In May 2012, Blankenship pled guilty to unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, a fourth-degree felony.
As part of an investigation before Blankenship’s sentencing, he was evaluated by a psychologist. The psychologist concluded that while Blankenship had committed a sexually-oriented offense, he wasn’t a sex offender. The doctor cautioned the court about labeling Blankenship that way, and he recommended psychotherapy but not sex-offender therapy.
On September 28, 2012, the court sentenced Blankenship to five years of community control and six months injail. Blankenship requested early release, which was granted by the court, and he served a total of 12 days. Based on state law, the court also classified him as a tier II sex offender.
With this classification, Blankenship must register in person with the county sheriff where he lives and where he attends school and/or works. He must verify his residential address and his place of employment and/or education every 180 days for 25 years.
Blankenship appealed the classification and registration requirements to the Second District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. He then filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Attorneys for Blankenship note that a punishment must be proportionate to the crime. In challenges like this one alleging an Eighth Amendment violation, they maintain that the nature of the crime and the offender’s characteristics must be examined. In this case, the psychologist determined that Blankenship wasn’t a sex offender, was unlikely to commit another sex offense, and didn’t need sex-offender therapy, they assert. They contend that the punishment imposing a sex-offender classification and registration requirements was disproportionate to Blankenship’s offense and his nature.
In their briefs to the court, attorneys for Blankenship and for the state frequently cite to In re C.P., a 2012 Ohio Supreme Court decision that concluded it’s cruel and unusual punishment to impose automatic, lifelong sex-offender classification and notification requirements on juvenile sex offenders.
Attorneys from the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office argue the punishment in that case was found unconstitutionally disproportionate when applied to juveniles, not to adults such as Blankenship. They add that Blankenship also doesn’t identify a distinct group to which he belongs for the court to create a rule that those in that category can’t be subjected to sex-offender registration requirements.
U.S. Supreme Court’s Two-Part Test
Both sides also walk through a U.S. Supreme Court two-step analysis for reviewing Eighth Amendment cases – whether there is a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue and whether, in its own independent judgment, the court concludes that a punishment violates the Constitution. A court’s independent judgment in these cases takes into account an offender’s culpability, the severity of the punishment, and penological justifications.
National Consensus Against Sex-Offender Classification?
Blankenship’s attorneys explain that Congress has passed several laws since the mid-1990s requiring states to implement sex-offender registries and community notification procedures with varying specificity and strictness. After Congress enacted the Adam Walsh Act in 2006, states had to pass similar laws or risk losing certain federal grant money. Ohio’s laws complying with the federal enactment were effective Jan. 1, 2008.
Blankenship’s attorneys point out that only 17 states have “substantially implemented” the federal law’s requirements. However, they admit that no national consensus against mandatory sex-offender classification exists.
Clark County’s attorneys point to a 2014 Gallup poll showing that 94 percent of Americans favor laws mandating registration for people convicted of child molestation. They conclude that there is substantial support across the country for sex-offender registries, and this support diminishes Blankenship’s Eighth Amendment claim.
Blankenship’s attorneys contend that Blankenship is part of a category of individuals who have committed sexually oriented offenses but aren’t sex offenders. While they state that those in this category are culpable for the sexually oriented offenses and should be punished for those crimes, they claim these individuals don’t deserve classification as sex offenders.
They argue the U.S. Supreme Court has relied on scientific studies in recent juvenile cases that found the brain is still developing into a person’s mid-20s. They assert that Blankenship has lesser culpability than older adults because he was 21, was less mature, and was involved in a consensual relationship.
Clark County’s attorneys view the category defined by Blankenship as a “slippery slope.” They counter that the legal meaning of “sex offender” is a person who is convicted of or pleads guilty to committing a sexually oriented offense, so Blankenship is a sex offender under Ohio law. They note that Blankenship improperly contacted the girl while his criminal case was pending and lied about it. Having sex with a young, impressionable girl and violating a court order to refrain from contact show a higher degree of culpability, they assert.
Severity of Punishment
Blankenship’s attorneys state that In re C.P. noted that registration and notification requirements involve stigmatization. They contend that this stigma will create 25 years of difficulties for Blankenship every time he seeks education, housing, and employment. Blankenship’s punishment is disproportionate to his crime, they argue.
The state’s attorneys stress that Blankenship faced a maximum prison sentence of 18 months, but served only 12 days in jail. They argue that his sentence, including sex-offender registration, isn’t so severe that it infringes on his Eighth Amendment rights.
The Ohio sex-offender classification and registration law’s purpose is to protect the public. Blankenship’s attorneys assert that the public doesn’t need protection from Blankenship, who isn’t a threat to society. They also cite research indicating that these registration and notification laws do little to protect the public generally. They argue his punishment can’t be justified as retribution or rehabilitation, and incapacitation doesn’t apply.
Clark County’s attorneys believe Blankenship’s sentence reflects an appropriate punishment in terms of the societal purposes of retribution and deterrence in sentencing.
Again citing In re C.P., Blankenship’s attorneys contend that a punishment that “shock[s] the sense of justice of the community” is considered cruel and unusual punishment. It’s shocking to a reasonable person, they argue, to ask individuals who’ve committed sexually oriented crimes but who’ve been determined by a psychologist not to be sex offenders to classify them as sex offenders and require registration for decades. They maintain that Blankenship’s risk of reoffending was low, he had no prior felony record, and he didn’t pose a threat to the community – all of which demonstrate the disproportionality of his sentence to his crime.
The state’s attorneys don’t find Blankenship’s punishment shocking. Such classifications and notification requirements provide consolation and comfort to families and victims of sexual offenses, and this punishment wouldn’t be seen by reasonable Ohioans as shocking, they argue. Blankenship’s sentence doesn’t constitute cruel and unusual punishment, they conclude.
– Kathleen Maloney
Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.
Representing Travis Blankenship: Katherine Ross-Kinzie, 614.466.5394
Representing the State of Ohio from the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office: Ryan Saunders, 937.521.1770