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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. William Howard Wilgus

March 26, 2012


Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court at No. 1100 MDA 2008, dated 06/26/2009, affirming the Order of Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County at No. CP-22-CR-0002439-2007, dated 05/27/2008.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Eakin


ARGUED: October 20, 2010


The Commonwealth appeals from the Superior Court order affirming the trial court's dismissal of charges against appellee for violation of Megan's Law requirements. For the following reasons, we reverse.

Appellee was convicted in 1998 of aggravated indecent assault; he received a sentence of five years to life imprisonment, was found to be a sexually violent predator, and was ordered to comply with Megan's Law registration requirements. The Superior Court vacated this sentence and remanded for resentencing without application of Megan's Law registration requirements; appellee was resentenced to five to 10 years imprisonment. He became subject to lifetime registration requirements because he was incarcerated when revisions to Megan's Law became effective in 2007. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9795.1(b)(4) (requiring registration for individuals currently residing in Commonwealth who have been convicted of certain offenses).

Upon his release from prison on April 23, 2007, a friend drove him to a homeless shelter in Harrisburg. Two days later, he left when he was told Megan's Law registrants were not allowed at the shelter. He went to 1708 Market Street in Harrisburg, which he had reported to prison authorities as his intended address upon release. Megan's Law requires offenders to register an intended address with prison authorities before being released. Id., § 9795.2(a)(4)(i). There were no apartments available at that address, and he began sleeping at various places on the street.

Appellee arranged to have his mail, including Social Security checks, delivered to a soup kitchen in Harrisburg. He obtained a locker there and visited daily to drop off and retrieve his belongings. He never informed authorities he was not living at the previously reported address, and when a detective attempted to verify appellee's compliance with registration requirements, he found appellee never resided there.

On May 20, 2007, appellee was located in the area of Second and Market Streets in Harrisburg and was arrested for failing to register; Megan's Law requires sex offenders to notify Pennsylvania State Police of their residence and any change of residence. Id., § 9795.2. He was convicted under 18 Pa.C.S. § 4915(a)(1) (failure to register with Pennsylvania State Police as required) and 18 Pa.C.S. § 4915(a)(2) (failure to verify address or be photographed as required), at a non-jury trial and sentenced accordingly.

Appellee filed post-sentence motions arguing the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction because he had no residence to register; in the alternative, he argued the registration requirements were unconstitutionally vague as applied to homeless defendants. The trial court found the evidence insufficient to support appellee's convictions, granted his motion, and dismissed the charges against him. The Commonwealth appealed.

The Superior Court affirmed, agreeing with the trial court's reasoning that appellee had no "residence" as defined by Megan's Law; accordingly, he could not be held in violation of requirements to register his residence. Commonwealth v. Wilgus, 975 A.2d 1183, 1189 (Pa. Super. 2009). The Superior Court held appellee's conviction should be set aside, concluding, "the Legislature could have drafted the Megan's Law registration requirement to require a homeless and transient person to register, but it did not .." Id., at 1184.

As the issue had not been addressed in Pennsylvania, the Superior Court relied on Twine v. State, 910 A.2d 1132 (Md. 2006), in which the Court of Appeals of Maryland found Twine's eviction and subsequent homelessness did not constitute a change in residence for purposes of registration.*fn1 As in the present case, the appellant in Twine argued he could not register a residence because he did not have one. Id., at 1136. The Maryland Court held Twine did not change residences because he did not acquire a new residence within the meaning of the statute. The Court determined the legislature intended "residence" and "address," used interchangeably in the statute, to indicate a fixed location where a person lives or intends to return. Id., at 1138. The Court relied on State v. Pickett, 975 P.2d 584 (Wash. App. 1999)*fn2 and State v. Iverson, 664 N.W.2d 346 (Minn. 2003); in those cases, the courts found sex offender registration statutes did not impose an obligation on homeless registrants to report a change of residence. Twine, at 1138-39.

Similarly, the Superior Court here sought to determine the meaning of the word "residence" and whether that meaning applies to a homeless person. The statute defines "residence" as "[a] location where an individual resides or is domiciled or intends to be domiciled for 30 consecutive days or more during a calendar year." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9792.*fn3 The court reasoned that the statutory language of "30 consecutive days or more" required a "residence" to have some degree of permanence. Wilgus, at 1187. The court further reasoned that the General Assembly's policy statement referencing community notification intended a residence to be a fixed geographical location within a neighborhood. Id.

The court then looked to decisions from other states for interpretation and application of the meaning of "residence." Using these cases and a dictionary definition, the court concluded the statutory definition of "residence" intended to convey a somewhat permanent location, and this interpretation furthered the purpose of Megan's Law, which is to provide notice to residents that sexual predators are living in their area. The court stated, "Megan's Law, as enacted by the Pennsylvania Legislature, simply does not cover the situation presented by a homeless person without a fixed place of habitation of some degree of permanence." Id., at 1186. Accordingly, the court held appellee had no residence and therefore could not comply with registration requirements. Id., at 1189.

The Commonwealth appealed, and we granted allocatur on the following issue:

Did the courts below err by concluding that a defendant who provides an address and subsequently becomes homeless has no duty to comply with the registration requirements of Megan's Law, such that evidence consistent with these circumstances would be insufficient to support a verdict of guilty of failure to register?

Commonwealth v. Wilgus, 989 A.2d 340, 340 (Pa. 2010) (table). "These issues pose purely legal questions; thus, this Court's review of the Superior Court's determinations is plenary and de novo." Commonwealth v. Colavita, 993 A.2d 874, 886 (Pa. 2010). (citation omitted).

"The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly." 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(a). "Words and phrases [of a statute] shall be construed according to rules of grammar and according to their common and approved usage .." Id., § 1903(a). "When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, they are presumed to be the best indication of legislative intent." ...

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