Sex Offender Registries Face Legal Challenge
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
Courts throughout the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, are taking a second look at a practice common in all 50 states the listing of names of convicted sex offenders in an official registry.
California started the practice in 1947, but its modern origins trace to "Megan's Law," a widely copied New Jersey statute that requires that the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders to be accessible to the public.
"Megan's Law" is named after a Garden State seven-year old sexually assaulted and killed by a neighbor who, unbeknownst to the girl's parents, was a convicted rapist.
All 50 states have laws that allow them to create databases of registered sex offenders and make them available to the public. Some states provide only the names of offenders deemed dangerous. Others make public the names of those convicted of serious sex crimes but treat other offenders on on a case-by-case basis. About 386,000 convicted sex offenders were listed nationwide as of February 2001, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says.
Thirty-four states have put their sex-offender registries on the Internet.
In 21 states, laws don't require a hearing before an offender is listed. . Critics say this contravenes the constitutional guarantee that government will not deprive a citizen of life, liberty or property "without due process of law."
These state laws are believed to be on shaky ground because of the Supreme Court's decision to hear a Connecticut case testing whether sex offenders have a right to a hearing before information about them is publicized. The high court will also review a lower court ruling that it is unfair to list people on sex offender registries who completed their prison sentences before the law was enacted.
States, like Michigan will be closely watching the outcome. On June 3, a federal judge overturned Michigan's registry law, saying it denied people listed the chance to challenge whether they are a danger to society.
"(Having a) hearing is important because many people on the Michigan list are guilty of crimes like urinating in public, indecent exposure, teenagers having consensual sex with their underage girlfriends, and those people are not all dangers to society," said Michael Steinberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
"Before you deprive someone of their reputation and ability to get a job and ability to find an apartment, there should be a hearing to determine whether they are actually a sexual predator," he said.
Maureen Kanka, mother of the murdered youngster who inspired the sex offender registry laws, expects the high court to uphold them.
"We've always known that ultimately it would go before the U.S. Supreme Court. I do feel it will be upheld. It's necessary, it's needed, and any offender who doesn't want to fall under Megan's Law, they need to stop molesting our children," Kanka, who heads a foundation dedicated to her daughter , told Stateline.org.
University of Connecticut law professor Timothy Everett says the public would be better served if the Supreme Court strikes down laws that don't require a hearing.
If legal proceeding determines that an individual convicted of a sex crime remains a danger to society, that finding will make his or her listing on a registry more meaningful, Everett says.