Supreme Court agrees to hear constitutional challenge to some Megan's Law sex offender lists
Monday, May 20, 2002
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider a constitutional challenge to some registries of known sex offenders, the second case the court will hear involving lists meant to keep tabs on potentially dangerous sex criminals.
The court said it will hear an appeal from Connecticut, where a federal judge struck down the state's sex offender registry last year. The judge found that the law violated the constitutional rights of past offenders, because their names were placed on the list without a chance to prove they are no longer dangerous to society.
The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the registry is no longer publicly available.
The case could affect more than 20 states with similar laws requiring community notification based on the offender's record rather than an individual evaluation of his or her current likelihood to repeat the crime.
A high court ruling against Connecticut could force states to hold separate hearings for sex criminals to assess whether their names, addresses or other identifying information will be made public.
All states have laws requiring some kind of list of sex criminals, but some provide the public with names of only those offenders deemed dangerous. Still other states have hybrid laws, making the names public in the cases of serious sex crimes, but taking a case-by-case approach when the crime is considered less egregious.
The registry laws are usually called Megan's law, after Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl raped and killed in 1994 by a neighbor who was a convicted sex offender. Her parents didn't know his history when he moved in across the street.
The registries take conviction records already publicly available through police or court records, and compile them in one place. Information on Connecticut sex offenders is still publicly available on the old piecemeal basis.
The Bush administration backed Connecticut in asking the Supreme Court to step in.
``Megan's laws serve vital government interests by assisting law enforcement and enabling American communities to better protect themselves, and in particular their children,'' the administration's top Supreme Court lawyer wrote in court papers.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson noted that federal law requires states to have a registry, or face a reduction in federal funding.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia also filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing Connecticut.
The Supreme Court will hear the case in the term that begins next fall.
The court will also hear a separate constitutional challenge to laws in about a dozen states that publish names, addresses or other personal information about convicted sex offenders on the Internet. The question in that case is whether such publicly available lists, which include names of people who long ago served their sentences, amount to unconstitutional double punishment for the same crime.
Connecticut's registry was also available over the Internet, but that factor was not the key to the case the high court agreed to hear Monday.
The registry was created in 1998 and operated by state police. Users could search by town for lists of resident sex offenders. It listed the names, addresses and, in most cases, pictures of nearly 2,100 offenders. The Web site received 150,000 hits per month, state police said.
Two anonymous sex offenders sued the state, claiming they are no longer a danger to society and should not be stigmatized. The men claimed the registry violated their constitutional right to fair treatment in the courts by denying them a chance to keep their names off the list.
According to the Justice Department, laws similar to Connecticut's are in force in: Alabama; Delaware; the District of Columbia; Florida; Georgia; Illinois; Indiana; Louisiana; Maryland; Michigan; Mississippi; Missouri; New Mexico; North Carolina; Oklahoma; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; Virginia; West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The case is Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. John Doe, 01-1231.
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