MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said Thursday he will resume prosecuting sex offenders who fail to register with local authorities when they move to western Montana, following an appeals court ruling this week that upheld the practice. Mercer's office stopped pursuing such cases in June 2008 after U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula ruled the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006 was unconstitutional. Prosecutions had continued in eastern Montana, supported by a ruling in a separate case before U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull in Billings. Mercer said prosecutions in the western half of the state would resume based on a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion issued Tuesday. In a case that originated in Yakima, Wash., the San Francisco-based appeals court said the sex offender act did indeed pass constitutional muster. In a footnote, the court said it "disapproved" of Molloy's ruling last year, in which he had said Congress lacked authority to enact the law under the interstate commerce clause. The panel wrote that Congress has the right to enact such a law as long as it is "necessary and proper" under the commerce clause. The federal law applies to sex of fenders who move between states or between a state and an American Indian reservation. Since March 2007, Mercer's office has received 30 referrals for prosecution under the act, he said. Charges were filed in 26, including 23 that brought conviction. He said he does not know how many wes ter n Montana cases weren't prosecuted because his office told law enforcement to stop referring cases to them because they couldn't be prosecuted. "Individuals with an obligation to register as sex offenders pursuant to federal statutes and state statutes need to take the responsibility very seriously or they will be prosecuted," Mercer said. The maximum penalty is 10 years in federal prison, although Mercer said sentences of one to three years have been more common. "There's got to be some teeth in the law to get enforcement," he said.