State v. Fritsche, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022-NCCOA-339 (May. 17, 2022)

In 2000, the defendant pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a child in violation of Colorado’s laws. The defendant served eight years in prison and registered with the Colorado Sex Offender Registry in 2008, as required by Colorado law. In February 2020, the defendant moved from Colorado to Florida and registered with the Florida Sex Offender Registry, as required by Florida law. The defendant moved to North Carolina in October 2020 and filed a petition requesting a judicial determination of his requirement to register in North Carolina as a sex offender. The trial court entered an order in 2021 requiring that the defendant register as a sex offender on the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry, and the defendant did so on the following business day.

The defendant then filed a petition pursuant to G.S. 14- 208.12A for termination of his requirement to register as a sex offender. The trial court denied the defendant’s petition on the ground that the defendant did not satisfy all of the conditions for early termination of his requirement to register as a sex offender, in that he had not been registered as a sex offender for ten years in North Carolina.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying his petition to terminate his requirement to register as a sex offender because the Court’s holding in In re Borden, 216 N.C. App. 579 (2011), was incorrectly decided and should be overturned. In Borden, the Court of Appeals interpreted the statutory phrase “ten years from the date of initial county registration” as limiting eligibility for removal from the North Carolina sex-offender registry to offenders who have been registered for at least ten years from their initial date of registration in a North Carolina county, rather than ten years from the offender’s initial date of registration in any jurisdiction. Slip op. at ¶ 12. Here, the Court determined that although the defendant initially registered as a sex offender in Colorado in 2008, he initially registered as a sex offender in North Carolina in 2021. The Court thus held that because the defendant did not satisfy the statute’s requisite period of registration, he was ineligible for termination from the sex-offender registry.

The defendant argued, in the alternative, that the trial court erred in denying his petition to terminate his requirement to register as a sex offender because the termination statute’s ten-year North Carolina registry requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause. The Court of Appeals determined that an individual’s residency at the time of his initial registration as a sex offender is not inherently suspect, and thus applied a rational basis review to determine whether the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Court concluded that the requirement that a defendant be registered in North Carolina as a sex offender for at least ten years in order to be eligible for early termination of sex offender registration is rationally related to the State’s legitimate interests in maintaining public safety and protection. The Court also concluded that the defendant was treated the same as all other registered sex offenders who initially enrolled in another jurisdiction’s sex-offender registry based upon an out-of-state conviction. The Court thus held that the ten-year North Carolina registry requirement under G.S. 14-208.12A(a) does not violate the Equal Protection Clauses of the United States and North Carolina Constitutions.