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Should Sex Offenders Have to Identify Themselves?

Aired May 30, 2001 - 19:30   ET


TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. They did it in colonial Massachusetts, they're doing it in 21st century Texas. Public shaming is back. Manuel Banales, a judge in Corpus Christi, has ordered 14 convicted sex offenders to place signs in their front yards telling the world what they've done.

"Danger," the signs read, "registered sex offender lives here." The judge has ordered the men to put similar bumper stickers on their cars. When they catch a ride from a friend, the sign goes with them, affixed to the window with a suction cup, like a parody of a "baby on board" placard. Not surprisingly, the sex offenders don't like it. Neither do their lawyers. They claim it's an invitation to vigilante justice. Tough luck, says the judge, the signs are good for public safety.

Sitting in for Bill Press tonight on the left, Mike Kinsley, longtime CROSSFIRE veteran and the editor of, the best-read and the best-written political magazine on the Net -- Mike.

MICHAEL KINSLEY, GUEST HOST: Thanks for the plug, Tucker. Mr. Valdez, here is a typical case. Some guy is caught groping his girlfriend's daughter. She is a teenager. He is prosecuted and they make a plea bargain. He will take parole, not go to jail, and saves you the trouble of having to try him.

Four years later this judge comes along and says, oh, by the way, your parole means you have to keep this sign in front of your house. People will come along and threaten to beat you up, possibly actually beat you up. Your landlord will try to get rid of you. You won't be able to find any place to live. Is this sensible?

CARLOS VALDEZ, DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR NUECES COUNTY, TEXAS: Well, the example you used is probably one of those cases that we might look at a little closer to see whether or not it would be appropriate. I think in these types of cases the judge should be making a finding about whether or not the defendant, the accused or the convicted felon in this case would pose a danger to the community.

The signs that are being proposed are not to shame anybody or to embarrass anybody or to humiliate anybody. Really the purpose for the signs is public safety and if this person that we're talking about, this hypothetical person, poses a danger to the community, then I guess yes, it would be appropriate for the judge to order him to put up a sign, but the judge must make findings based on the record and based on evidence.

KINSLEY: Well, this judge actually has made those findings, or at least he's required people to do this and some of them, for example, they were 19 or 20 and they had a girlfriend who was 15 or 16, and they had consensual sex and that's against the law. But is that a justification for what is essentially, it seems to me, and I wonder if you agree with this, making his life impossible?

VALDEZ: The justification is not really the facts of the original case. The justification is the safety to the public. If the judge finds that the person who's been convicted poses a danger to the public, I think it is justified in any case, even in the case that you proposed.

KINSLEY: How is he a danger to the public?

VALDEZ: Well, that's where the judge comes in to making the findings. You have to have a hearing and based on the evidence, find that the person poses a danger to the public. I don't know how somebody like that would be a danger, but if the judge finds he would be danger, I think it's justified.

CARLSON: Now, Mr. Rogen, as I understand this, this is a pretty clear choice the judge has offered up. You have on the one hand embarrassing a sex offender. And you have, on the other hand, protecting the public. Now you have, apparently, taken the side of the sex offender in all this. Explain to we nonlawyers how that works.

GERALD ROGEN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: In America we punish offenders. We do not punish the offender's family. And while putting a bumper sticker on the back of the car, it endangers not only the offender, it endangers the offender's family. And in the streets of Nueces County you are a moving target, and when you got home you are a sitting duck because you have this huge sign in your front door that says danger, ,sex offender.

It's very vague. When people initially see the word "sex offender" they think of Chester the molester who's out there harming little girls. And we do not know the facts of this case. What the judge here has done is went beyond the law and has made up his own signs. We have 1,000 different judges here in Texas. Should we have 1,000 different types of signs? Perhaps they would blend in well with their campaign signs. Because isn't this maybe about votes?

CARLSON: Wait a second Mr. Rogen. Some of these guys are Chester the molester. Some of these guys have molested children and the judge is not saying this is a punishment to them, but it's a way of protecting the public. It's a way of allowing people to make a choice about whether or not they want to go into the house of someone who's been convicted of a sex crime. How is that a bad thing?

ROGEN: Chester the molester is in prison. In Texas if you commit a second offense, you are then therefore given an automatic life sentence. We are tough on crime in Texas. And this goes beyond what's allowable under the Texas code of criminal procedure. There is a specific chapter that says exactly how we notify the public. And this is in it if the Sheriff, when they get out of prison of whatever, believes that it is necessary, first there is an assessment done by five different people in a committee to assess to what degree of severity this offender is to the community.

This has not been done in this situation. This is purely the act of one judge, in a county where we have eight district court judges and no one else is going forward with this plan. It's a dangerous scheme and I believe it will be found unconstitutional by the 13th court of appeals.

KINSLEY: Mr. Valdez, you don't intend this to be punishment perhaps, but you don't deny that the actual result is a pretty severe form of punishment, to have to have this kind of sign in front of your house, to carry it around and stick it on the window of any car you get into.

VALDEZ: No, I do think that that is not punishment. The punishment is something else. The punishment is an actual jail sentence or an actual confinement or a fine or something like this.

KINSLEY: Really, let me ask you, which would you prefer: Six months in jail or four or five years of having this sign plastered everywhere you went and trying to live in society?

VALDEZ: You mean which would I prefer for a convicted felon?

KINSLEY: Which one would you prefer if you were a convicted felon?

VALDEZ: I wouldn't be a convicted felon in the first place, but if I had convicted somebody, I would prefer to send them to prison. That would be my first preference. If I could get people to -- on juries, we have jury sentencing here in Texas -- and have people on juries sentence them to prison, we wouldn't even be talking about this.

KINSLEY: Well, that's the point isn't it? You have jury sentencing and that's the law, and that's what your friend there says. And yet, this judge said, well the juries may not sentence them to jail, in fact, they mostly got plea bargains, but I'm going to override that and do something which seems to me, as a matter of common sense, is quite punishing, whether you wish to call it punishment or not.

VALDEZ: Right, I don't think it's overriding any jury verdicts. I think it's trying to protect the public, trying to do something besides what the jury did in a certain case. If a jury sentences somebody to probation we have got to do whatever we can to protect the public, and I think the judge is trying to do what is right in the case.

KINSLEY: You keep saying, protect the public, but there is the rule of law. Can the judge do anything he wants? He can't put them in jail. VALDEZ: Actually, under probation he can order as a condition of probation that people be sent to jail for a certain amount of time. But in most cases that's...

KINSLEY: Hasn't he really ratted on a plea bargain? In most cases this is not a jury verdict. This is a plea bargain, they made the deal and four years later this judge says I'm changing the terms of the deal. Isn't that a little unfair?

VALDEZ: It may be unfair, but it's allowed under the law. This has been done before in other counties. It's been tested before in some court cases. So it may be unfair but I think's allowed. There are several things that are unfair in the law, but when the issue is the public safety...

KINSLEY: Well, shouldn't we try to change them?

VALDEZ: Pardon me?

KINSLEY: Shouldn't we try to change the things that are unfair in the law?

VALDEZ: I think if we can determine what's unfair we should try to change them, and I think one of the things we should start doing is to allow for something like this in the law, in the written law, that allows for a judge to do this.

CARLSON: Now, Mr. Rogen, you said a lot about how this is a dangerous scheme, I think you said. I want you to hear from a neighbor of one of these convicted sex offenders. She's not a defense attorney, she's merely a neighbor. She was quoted in "The New York Times" the other day. Her name is Adrianna Quiroz. This is what she had to say to "The New York Times" about these signs. Quote, "I think it's a great idea. This way everyone knows to stay away from that guy's place. Maybe we should have them for thieves and killers too."

My question to you, Mr. Rogen, is if there was a convicted child molester, for instance, living next door to you and you had small children, wouldn't you want to know about this guy's criminal past?

ROGEN: Of course. That's why we follow this one law in Texas, but for this one judge, we have a Megan's Law provision, and in that provision of the law, it clearly states how the public is to know. All they have to do is call the police chief in the county. They can go on the Internet and find out exactly where these people are living.

So, a responsible parent, like myself, who has a 5 1/2 year-old daughter, I can go and check who my neighbors are.

CARLSON: So, as I understand it, your qualm is merely that this judge has found a more efficient way to do what is already going on Texas, which is to decimate information about sex offenders. What about people who don't have enough money to afford a computer, who can't go on the Internet, people who don't read newspapers, and there are, believe it or not, people that don't have computers. Why shouldn't they have access to the same information? ROGEN: Oh, they do have access. All they have to do is call the police chief and say, I live here. Where are the sex offenders in my neighborhood?

CARLSON: But why should they have to, if they can just see it on a sign? It's the same effect. It strikes me that this judge's order makes it more efficient and more obvious to the public. It achieves the goal of the original law, doesn't it?

ROGEN: Also, what will happen to the neighbor's home value? How will you sell a house if you have a big sign next door that says, registered sex offender, in the area? What will happen to property values? What is chance of violence? What if a kid comes along and pulls the sign up and then plants it in your yard, and some knucklehead drives by and decides to pop a few caps in your house? How would you feel about that?

CARLSON: That's an excellent question. That's one of the questions we will take up when we return, for our real estate section here on CROSSFIRE.

We'll be back in just a moment.


KINSLEY: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Mike Kinsley of, pretending to be Bill Press.

A judge in Corpus Christi, Texas is ordering sex offenders to post a sign in front of their house: "Danger: Registered Sex Offender Lives Here." Another sign goes on their car. And they even get a little portable sign with suction cups for when they're riding in someone else's car. Some people think this is nuts. Some people like the idea, which makes it a CROSSFIRE.

And joining us, from Corpus Christi, are Criminal Defense Lawyer Gerald Rogan and County District Attorney Carlos Valdez.

Mr. Valdez, let me pose the question that Mr. Rogen was asking before the break. I have to say, if I were a neighbor of this guy, the last thing in the world I would want would be a sign in front of his house, saying, Sex Offender Lives Here, especially if I was trying to sell my house, because who would conceivably buy it?

VALDEZ: I think if you were living next to him, you would want to know if he was a sex offender. But when you talk about property values, the question becomes, what is the value of the life of a child? Would we rather risk this offender hurting somebody else for the rest of the child's life? Is that worth $10 million in property values? Is that worth a billion dollars in property values?

KINSLEY: Are you offering on the part of government to recompense these neighbors for the value of houses, when they can't sell them?

VALDEZ: Not at all. My job as district attorney is to try to keep the community safe. And that's what I try to do. I have seen and talked to too many victims' families, and to too many victims who have been harmed for life, and my question is, how much is that worth? Is that worth the value of property? I think human life is a lot more valuable than any property would be.

I don't worry too much about property values going down. I think people would want to know when somebody who is dangerous living next to him.

CARLSON: OK, so, Mr. Rogen, we have established that the realtors are against this and you are, too. Can you tell me, though -- you brought up a couple times the specter of sex offenders out of prison on parole or probation being murdered at red lights or having their houses being burned down by vigilantes. Can you name a single example in Texas of this happening?

ROGEN: I can -- this has only happened for a week -- I can relate the example of one of my clients, who -- his father is a Vietnam veteran, answers a knock on the door at 11:00 p.m. and this man starts screaming at him, what are you doing in the neighborhood? You should go live in a cave. A few more expletives went.

And then my client's father was in shock that he gets verbally assaulted in his own home. Later, the next day, he gets evicted from his apartment, the apartment he lived in for three years.

CARLSON: Oh, so what you are saying is, someone was rude to his father. Let me just give you an example. I'm not trying to downplay the importance of it. Let me give you an example of the sort of affect these signs may have in a positive way.

Early this month, a guy who lives in your county in Texas was convicted of attempting to molest a small girl. It turns out, this guy had been convicted before of child molestation. There was no sign in front of his house, and partly because of that, he is able to lure this girl in with a rabbit and attempt to molest her. This never would have happened, I think you'll agree, if there had been a sign on his front lawn.

So, yelling at -- coming to the door at the middle of the night and yelling at this character's father versus a child molestation, averted. They're not comparable, are they?

ROGEN: Under this logic, why don't we just tattoo something on their forehead. So, that would...

CARLSON: That's not what we are talking about. We are not talking about branding, either; we are talking about putting a sign on the front lawn. They're not the same.

ROGEN: We are trying to ostracize these people. They feel...

CARLSON: But they are child molesters! So, what's wrong with ostracizing them? We're not allowed to ostracize child molesters now?

ROGEN: Well, what we are doing with these people is, if they are such a danger, let's put them in prison. If they are out of prison, let's notify the public legally and lawfully and let's punish the offender and not the offender's family.

What about the safety of the offender's family and their children? This is bizarre.

KINSLEY: Mr. Valdez, I think the silliest part of this law is this portable sign with suction cups that you are supposed to take with you in your car, so people know you are convicted sex offender and not let their kids anywhere near you. Isn't it likely that if you are going to the park, looking for trouble, you're going to not take that suction-cup device with you.

VALDEZ: That's probably true.

KINSLEY: So isn't it rather pointless?


KINSLEY: I mean, who is there who is going to -- who is going to violate his parole by committing the crime that got him in trouble in the first place that is going to say, "Boy, I better take that little sign with me or I'm really going to be in trouble with that judge"?

VALDEZ: Well, I don't think it's pointless. I think it creates some deterrence and it makes people think...


VALDEZ: It makes people think twice before they do something. They know they're required to do that. And you find in most cases that people on probation really try to comply with the conditions of probation. Now, they fail in many cases, and it's just one other way for us to keep track of somebody, and if necessary, revoke their probation and send them off to the penitentiary.

So I think there's a point to it. If these people are going to...

KINSLEY: Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

VALDEZ: ... to a place where children congregate, I think there's a very important point to it.

KINSLEY: But my -- but aren't they going to leave the sign behind?

VALDEZ: If they leave the sign behind and if we eventually catch up with them, we -- we can file a motion to revoke their probation and try to send them to the penitentiary.

CARLSON: Now, Mr. Rogen, you raised, I thought, a pretty interesting point a moment ago when you said, if these people are so dangerous, why not just send them to prison, and it's not a bad point. But it raised the question, of course, you can't send someone to prison unless you convict him of a crime. In the case of sex offenders, we know, because a number of studies have shown, that they have an enormously high recidivism rate. Up to 80 percent commit sex offenses again. So we're fairly certain that most of these guys are going to do it again. But unless we catch them -- of course, we can send them to prison -- but we're still left with this question how do we protect society from them given that we know they're going to do it.

It strikes me that these signs strike the perfect balance between punishing -- we can't punish them if they haven't been caught doing something -- and protecting the public. Doesn't it make sense for this specific category of offender?

ROGEN: I'd -- I disagree with your very premise. First, we have to see what type of offender are they. That's why the law here in Texas already has a classification program that is to be used. And therefore, all we're asking the judge to do here is follow the law in the state of Texas. And that's...

CARLSON: But I don't think anybody has said -- has claimed that the judge has violated the law in doing this. Are you saying that this judge is acting outside the law, has somehow broken laws by ordering these signs?

ROGEN: Yes. Yes, he is acting outside his constitutional power by creating things. If we think this is a good idea, if you believe it's a good idea, why don't we go to the Texas legislature and pass it so it's in the Texas code of criminal procedure? Rather by what's going on today, we're going to have 1,000 different judges making up what they think is reasonable. Maybe some will think T-shirts are responsible. Perhaps some will believe little patches on their lapels would be a good thing for society. That would be safe.

CARLSON: But those aren't absurd. This is innovation. This is innovation in the criminal justice system. Isn't this what America cries out for? New ways to prevent crime?

ROGEN: We do not punish the offender's family. We punish the offender. And what this new wave is doing is bringing us back to the days of having the people to stand in front of the town square and get pelted with tomatoes, instead here we're talking about getting pelted with bullets.

This is a very dangerous thing in the community. And that's what we're worried about, is that someone is going to be hurt or killed.

CARLSON: Mr. Rogen, Mr. Valdez, thank you both very much.

VALDEZ: Thank you.

CARLSON: Mike Kinsley and I will be back in a moment to talk about signs and real estate values and sex offenders, among other things, in our closing comments. We'll be right back.


KINSLEY: Well, Tucker, given your apparent obsession with real estate, I suppose we ought to go straight to that question. As a neighbor of one of these guys, would you actually be happier with a sign in front of your next-door neighbor's house saying "Sex offender lives here."

CARLSON: No, I'd prefer no sign. That way the neighborhood kids would go ever there and play.

Look, I'm interested in more information, in this, in journalism, in everything. It's always better to know more. That's why the Freedom of Information Act is a good thing and that's why these signs are a good thing.

And furthermore, it's nice to have at least one group where you can, you know, where you can say, "Gee, child molesting, unacceptable -- we'll treat it that way."

KINSLEY: Well, it's very unfortunate, as you said, that we can't punish people before they've been convicted. But given that...

CARLSON: These people have already been convicted.

KINSLEY: ... will you acknowledge -- yes, and they made a plea bargain, which did not include this, which Mr. Valdez denied was punishment.

CARLSON: Oh, please.

KINSLEY: You're a sensible person. It is punishment, isn't it?

Maybe -- say -- say it's punishment, it's OK with me. But don't deny...

CARLSON: That's -- that's absolutely...

KINSLEY: Don't deny...

CARLSON: That's absolutely immaterial to me whether it's punishment.

KINSLEY: Nothing changes. From the left, sitting not in for Bill Press, I'm Mike Kinsley. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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