Court to hear sex-crime registry challenge

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent   |   May 20, 2002 at 11:28 AM   |   0 comments

WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether Connecticut's version of "Megan's Law" -- which gives the public access to a registry of convicted sex offenders who have been released from prison -- is constitutional.

People across the country, especially those with children, have relied on sex-crime registries to tell them if convicted sex offenders are living in their neighborhoods.

Now that public access is under siege and could fall victim to a challenge before the nation's highest court.

A lower court has ruled the key provision of the Connecticut law unconstitutional because it does not require the state to prove the convicted offender continues to be dangerous.

The continued dangerousness of a sex offender is one of the main factors used to justify the sex-crime registries.

A ruling by the Supreme Court in this case, which should be heard next fall, will apply across the country.

Encouraged to do so by federal law, all states have some version of Megan's Law on their books. The first such law was enacted in New Jersey and named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was sexually assaulted and killed in 1994 by a repeat sexual offender.

Connecticut's version requires the registration of anyone convicted of a crime in four categories: criminal offenses against a minor victim, non-violent sexual offenses, violent sexual offenses, and felonies committed for a sexual purpose.

Persons convicted of violent sexual offenses are registered for life; the rest are registered for 10 years.

Everyone who must be registered is required to provide the state Department of Public Safety with his or her name, fingerprints and other identifying factors, a photograph, criminal history record, address and a blood sample for DNA purposes.

Convicted violent sexual offenders also must supply information on any mental health treatment, and verify an address every 90 days.

All those being registered have to notify the state of a new address within five days. They must also tell the registering agency when they temporarily reside in another state, and must submit to having a new photograph taken any time the state requests it.

The state Department of Public Safety compiles all that information into a central registry and shares it with local and state police, the FBI and agencies in other states.

Under the law, the DPS also must make the registry available to the public. Connecticut does this primarily through its "Sex Offender Registry" on the Internet. The registry can be reached through the Web pages of several television stations as well as the state's Web page at state.ct.us.

The database is searchable by using zip codes so the public can find out which convicted sex offenders are living in their neighborhoods.

Sometime before May 1999 the state added a statement to the registry that said the DPS has "not considered or assessed the specific risk of reoffense ... and has made no determination that any individual included in the registry is currently dangerous."

The statement also warned anyone who uses the registry to "injure, harass or commit a criminal act" against someone listed would be criminally prosecuted.

One registry enrollee, identified in the case only as "John Doe," challenged the law in February 1999, saying it violated the "due process" guarantee of the 14th Amendment because it deprives him of a "liberty interest" -- his reputation and status under state law -- without a meaningful hearing.

He also claimed the law violated the "ex post facto" ban in the Constitution because it subjected him to punishment under a law that was not in effect when he committed his crime.

A federal judge granted "John Doe" summary judgment -- ruled in his favor without a trial -- on the due process claim, but said the effect of the law was not punitive enough to violate the ex post facto clause.

Because of the due process problem, the judge issued an injunction preventing the state from making the contents of the registry public, but not preventing the state from compiling the registry.

A federal appeals court agreed.

"We hold only that (Doe) and the members (of his class of registrants) are entitled to the opportunity to have a hearing consistent with due process principles to determine whether or not they are particularly likely to be currently dangerous," the appeals court said, "before being labeled as such by the inclusion in a publicly disseminated registry. We make no judgment as to what form that process should take."

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal then asked the Supreme Court for review of the Doe case, which has been combined with a similar case filed by "Samuel Poe."

The Supreme Court accepted the combined case Monday in a one-line order.

(No. 1-1231, DPS etc. vs. Poe and Doe)

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