Analysis Of SORNA Priors Involves Fact-Intensive Approach

US v. Price: Price pleaded guilty 2010 to "assault and batter of a high and aggravated nature" in South Carolina.  The basis for the charge was the claim that Price had forced a 12-year old girl to perform oral sex on him, as set forth during the plea hearing.  After his sentence was finished, Price moved to several different states, eventually returning to South Carolina.  Generally, during this time, he was not registering as a sex offender.  As a result, he was charged in South Carolina with failing to register under SORNA.  Price moved to dismiss, arguing that his prior conviction wasn't a "sex offense" as defined by SORNA.  Looking to the facts of the prior conviction the district court denied the motion.  Price entered  a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 24 months in prison and a lifetime term of supervised release.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Price's conviction by vacated his sentence.  On the conviction the court framed the issue as whether the categorical or circumstance-specific approach was appropriate in determining whether a prior offense was a "sex offense" under SORNA (the modified categorical approach was out because the court had earlier found the relevant South Carolina offense indivisible).  The court concluded the circumstance-specific approach - which allows the district court (or jury) to examine the underlying facts of the offense - was appropriate for two reasons.  First, the text, structure, and purpose of SORNA supported that conclusion because of it's references to "conduct" and the "nature" of the offense, rather than elements of a generic conviction.  Second, the Sixth Amendment concerns that animated the categorical approach in sentencing contexts was not present here because the Government bore the burden of proving a prior offense was a "sex offense" to a jury if the defendant went to trial.  On the sentence, the court applied the recent Collins decision, concluding that the district court incorrectly concluded that the supervised release Guideline range was life and remanding for resentencing.