Supreme Court to Hear Sex Offender Registry Cases

Public defenders and states say registries of sex offenders are needed to keep the public protected from sexual predators. But privacy and civil liberties groups say they give too much information out to the public and that the Internet allows too many people to see too much.

In its upcoming session, the Supreme Court will decide the fate of several states’ sex offender registries. The decision is expected to set the bar at just how much information states can give out to the public, particularly through the Web, on sex offenders living in their neighborhood and beyond.

Alaska’s registry has ended up in the Supreme Court for giving out too much information about convicted sex offenders. A lower court ruled the registry unconstitutional, so the state appealed the decision and now will be heard by the higher court.

That state’s registry is being challenged because it forces offenders to be put on the list who did their time before a law was passed requiring states to set up the registries. Opponents of the registry say this equals extra punishment for offenders.

And since Alaska’s registry is available to the public over the Internet, as many states’ registries are, it grossly violates offenders’ privacy, some groups argue.

"Personally, I think there’s a distinction between making that information available and making it available to anyone who wants to look at it," said Mikal Condon, staff attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), one of the groups that is opposing the registry.

EPIC argued in court documents submitted recently that the law is "excessive" because residents outside of the area where the offender lives can also look up information on the Web on convicted offenders.

"The government has a duty to impose safeguards and limitations upon its dissemination of such information," EPIC wrote in its brief. It added that offenders on the list have a "right to expect" that information on them held by the government will be spread around to anyone interested.

EPIC also wrote, "there is an increased potential for harm" to the offender if his or her information is spread on the Internet.

The group likened the situation to that which occurred following the posting of the Nuremburg Files, a Web site providing lists of abortion doctors with personal information that some likened to a "hit list."

But many groups such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Council of State Governments, National Governors Association and the New Jersey public defender’s office are supporting Alaska’s registry.

"All the states have a compelling interest in monitoring the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders, facilitating the investigation of sex crimes and in disseminating information about registered sex offenders to protect the public," wrote over 40 state attorneys general in their brief in support of Alaska.

"The states have a strong interest in preventing reoffense by convicted sex offenders, and in reducing the number of victims of sex crimes."

"This is a valid regulation -- it’s not penal in nature -- that’s why it can be retroactively applied," said Jim Crowley, lawyer for the state groups. "We’re talking about multiple offenders or child kidnappers."

Connecticut’s registry also has ended up in the Supreme Court. That registry is being challenged because opponents say it violates the Constitution by not including a way for offenders on the list to get off it. Two lower courts said parts of the registry were unconstitutional, so the state was forced to make it off limits to the public.

The Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, which brought the original lawsuit against the registry, argues that the state must abide by basic due process and give non-dangerous individuals a way to opt out of the listing. The group said Connecticut’s law unfairly stigmatizes those who do not pose a threat to society.

But Attorney General Richard Blumenthal appealed the decision and it will be heard this fall by the Supreme Court.

"This case is significant to Connecticut and all 50 states as they grapple with enacting and refining state protections modeled on Megan’s Law," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Public access to the sex offender registry is vital to public safety."