LAS VEGAS – Eager to protect children from sexual predators, Nevada and other states across the nation are adopting laws that publicize the names of offenders on the Internet.
But sex offenders say they have rights, too, and argue it's wrong to lump those guilty of minor offenses with the worst offenders. Some are challenging the laws.
"People think that imposing these draconian retroactive laws are a way to keep their children safe," said Margaret McLetchie, an American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada lawyer.
McLetchie and Robert Langford, who represent 27 unnamed plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit, want to block two sex-offender laws from taking effect in Nevada.
The laws, which they say are unconstitutional, were tailored to meet standards under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which President Bush signed in 2006.
Nevada was among the first to pass the laws that would allow the state to post on the Internet the names, photos, home and work addresses and vehicle descriptions of offenders who've served probation or prison sentences on convictions as far back as 1956.
McLetchie said the measures mix serious sex offenders with people convicted of misdemeanors such as public nudity and could subject them to violence from neighbors who see their names and photos.
"These laws don't provide public safety, they only demonize a particular group," she said.
But Binu Palal, the deputy state attorney general arguing the case for Nevada, said the law is constitutional and U.S. Supreme Court rulings from 2002 limit sex offenders' ability to block the release information about their crimes.
"The system is based on the fact of conviction," Palal said. "Informing the public of a true fact is not considered punishment."
U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan is scheduled to hear arguments Sept. 10 in the Nevada lawsuit. He is being asked to make permanent a temporary ban he imposed that stopped the law from taking effect July 1.
Mahan has expressed concerns that if Nevada posted its list of 4,941 people convicted of sex crimes since 1956, there would be no way to restore their privacy if the law was later found to be flawed.
Once posted, the judge said, "the cat's out of the bag."
His ruling is expected to be watched closely in states that have adopted or are considering provisions of the Adam Walsh Act, named for a 6-year-old Florida boy abducted and killed in 1981. He was the son of John Walsh, star of television's "America's Most Wanted."
Implementation has been challenged in some states, including Florida and Ohio.
"We've objected since it was first introduced in the Legislature," said Amy Borror, spokeswoman for the Ohio public defender's office in Columbus. "We believe it's unconstitutional when it's applied retroactively. Even going forward, it's bad policy."
Borror noted similarities between the Ohio and Nevada laws, and said officials in Ohio were watching the Nevada case with interest.
The Ohio registry went into effect Jan. 1 despite objections that it punished offenders twice, broke plea deals and represented a violation of states' rights by Congress. Furthermore, by creating the registry, the state Legislature usurped powers reserved to the courts, Borror said.
"We used to have a system where a judge made a decision about an offender's risk to re-offend," she said. "Now it's based only on the offense that they're convicted of, not on any future risk."
The federal law sets a July 2009 deadline for enactment, and threatens states with the loss of federal grant money if they fail to adopt it. In Nevada, officials told lawmakers the state stood to lose $300,000 a year if they failed to adopt the law.
Langford said he believed Nevada lawmakers knew the law would change the lives of convicted offenders, but didn't consider the breadth of the measures or the increased costs of enforcing them.
"Nobody wants to say they're for sex offenders," Langford said.
The plaintiffs in the Nevada lawsuit include a construction company manager, a tow truck operator and a grandfather, according to court documents. They are not identified by name.
Most say in court documents that they served sentences ranging from probation to prison time in plea agreements that predated passage of laws redefining a sex offender.
The plaintiffs claim the law is broad enough now to apply to a wide range of offenses ranging from child molestation to rape to theft of a pornographic magazine from a store.
Police Capt. Vincent Cannito, commander of the Las Vegas police sex crimes unit, said reclassification added about 1,800 people to a list of 2,200 offenders in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, home to about 2 million people.
Cannito said he has no sympathy for offenders who would have to check in more frequently with probation officers, or might be forced to move away from areas near schools or parks.
"Remember, it's the offender who decided to go out and commit the crime that they did," Cannito said. "This increases the standards and raises the level of accountability of those individuals who have been convicted of sex crimes, and it raises the ability of law enforcement to further protect the community."
Offenders complain that reclassification is unfair.
One plaintiff, identified as Doe 2 in court documents, said neither he nor his attorney at the time understood that lifetime supervision would apply after he pleaded guilty in 2001 to a sex offense, or that he would continue to be banned from going to parks or schools.
He said that during an acrimonious divorce his ex-wife accused him of sexually assaulting her 14-year-old daughter. He faced five felony charges but pleaded guilty to one count of attempted lewdness with a minor under 14, and was sentenced to 5 years probation.
"I never touched my stepdaughter or any other child inappropriately," he said in the affidavit, which says he took a plea deal to spare his children the embarrassment of a trial. "I was not told that there would be any restrictions on me whatsoever after I was done with probation."
He now lives with his second wife, his adult adopted stepdaughter, his 15-year-old son and the couple's 5-year-old son in Las Vegas. He said he fears for his family's safety and his job if he is identified publicly as a sex offender.
"I have done everything I can to comply with the law, and be a good citizen," he says in the affidavit. "I would never hurt anyone. But none of that matters now."