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Halloween Law Unenforceable, But Plaintiffs Pay Own Fees

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By William Peacock, Esq. on May 16, 2013 4:43 PM

Halloween and other holiday sex-offender restriction laws are a growing trend amongst that states, but at least in Missouri, the law will have a limited reach. After the Missouri State Supreme Court weighed in on the matter, anyone convicted before the law was passed in 2008 cannot be prosecuted for violating the law’s restrictions, which include not celebrating Halloween, turning out the lights for that evening, and posting a “No Candy” sign at the registered sex offender’s residence.

The plaintiffs-appellees in this Eighth Circuit case are not the defendants in the Missouri case, but they did have the same objective: to strike down the law. They sought an injunction to prevent enforcement immediately after the law was passed, and it was granted — days before Halloween. Unfortunately for them, the Eighth Circuit stayed the injunction, and Halloween proceeded, with sex offender restrictions in place.

The State Criminal Case

That same Halloween, a man named Charles Raynor was arrested and prosecuted under the law. His sex offender conviction occurred before the law was passed. The Missouri Supreme Court held the the law was "retrospective in its operation," and therefore, violated the state constitution as applied.

Because Raynor was in the exact same boat as the other plaintiffs in this case (they were all convicted before the law was passed), the defendants in this case conceded that the law was unenforceable against anyone convicted before the law was passed, and asked for the case to be dismissed on mootness grounds.

Mootness?

Obviously, voluntary cessation as grounds for mootness is tricky. After all, who's to say that the state will uphold its promise not to prosecute?

This isn't your everyday cessation case, however. The Missouri Supreme Court already ruled the law unconstitutional. Any enforcement of the law, at least against similarly-situated individuals (such as the plaintiffs), would be an absolute fool's errand.

Prevailing Party Gets Paid ... Or Not

The District Court initially granted fees to the defendants (the government officials). Then, under the prevailing party provision, reversed course and granted fees to the plaintiffs. They did, after all, get an injunction.

Their minor victory wasn't good enough, however for the Eighth Circuit. "[T]o be a prevailing party entitled to a statutory attorneys' fee award, a party must obtain a judicially sanctioned material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties to the lawsuit."

Though an injunction may suffice for a judicially sanctioned action, the plaintiffs' injunction was stayed by the Eighth Circuit before Halloween occurred -- and dismissed as moot after. These "transient" victories are not entitled to fee-shifting awards. As the Supreme Court noted in Sole, "Prevailing party status ... does not attend achievement of a preliminary injunction that is reversed, dissolved, or otherwise undone by the final decision in the same case."

In short, the plaintiffs won the constitutional war, based on a battle fought by someone else (Raynor), and as a result, won't gain the spoils of victory.

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