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Supreme Court upholds sex offender registration laws

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court has given states the green light to continue posting the names and pictures of convicted sex offenders on the Internet. And justices rejected attempts by a sex offender to prove he is no longer dangerous.

At issue was whether such laws amount to a second punishment for those already convicted for their crimes, and whether the laws violate an offender's due process rights. The court upheld the right of state legislatures to impose registries on sex offenders.

Every state has a so-called "Megan's law," named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived across the street.

These laws require convicted sex offenders and certain other types of felons released from prison to register with local authorities. Such information is typically available to the public through print and Internet sources.

In the first case from Alaska, the question was whether a state law violated the constitutional guarantee against ex post facto, or punishment after the fact.

One "John Doe" was convicted of abusing his young daughter, the other man abused a 14-year-old girl. Both men were released in 1990, before the state passed its sex offender registration law. They argue they had served their sentences and wanted to put their crimes behind them.

The court decided the state legislature intended the law to be regulatory, not punitive in nature.

Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: "Our system does not treat dissemination of truthful information in furtherance of legitimate governmental objection as punishment." And Kennedy noted, "The purpose and the principal effect of notification are to inform the public for its own safety, not to humiliate the offender."

But in her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disagreed. "However plain it may be that a former sex offender currently poses no threat of recidivism, he will remain subject to long-term monitoring and inescapable humiliation," she said.

The other case involves whether Connecticut's sex offender registration law violates due process because offenders are not allowed hearings to see if they are currently a danger to society.

In this case, the "John Doe" claims the Connecticut registry does not differentiate between the seriousness of each offender's crimes, and doesn't allow for a hearing regarding his "current dangerousness" before information about him and his crimes are made public.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for a unanimous court that even if the John Doe "could prove he is not likely to be currently dangerous, Connecticut has decided that the registry information of all offenders -- currently dangerous or not -- must be publicly disclosed."

Supporters of these registration laws say citizens deserve to know if convicted sex offenders are living in their neighborhoods, and argue registration laws are not unfair, since their convictions are already a matter of public record.

Opponents of the law call it a "government-imposed stigma" preventing those convicted deserve to move on with their lives after serving their time. They say such laws represent an overly intrusive invasion of privacy, since other criminal records are not subject to such readily available public scrutiny.

The cases are Smith v. Doe, 01-729 and Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe, 01-1231.


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