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Court upholds validity of sex offender registry laws

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Court upholds validity of sex offender registry laws

  • The high court found that release of public information under an Alaska law does not constitute punishment, and due process rights were not implicated by a Connecticut law because the registry specifically did not say that registrants were currently dangerous.

March 5, 2003 — The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld two state sex offender notification laws over objections that release of otherwise public information in such a registry constitutes additional punishment for a previous crime and requires additional due process protections.

“Our system does not treat dissemination of truthful information in furtherance of a legitimate governmental objective as punishment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a 6-3 majority of the court in a case in which a convicted sex offender contested Alaska’s law as an ex post facto punishment for a previous crime.

“Although the public availability of the information may have a lasting and painful impact on the convicted sex offender, these consequences flow not from the Act’s registration and dissemination provisions, but from the fact of conviction, already a matter of public record,” Kennedy added.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for a unanimous court in a case that challenged Connecticut’s law on due process grounds. There, the plaintiff sued because he had no opportunity to demonstrate that he was no longer a danger to the community. But, Rehnquist noted, the registry “explicitly states that officials have not determined that any registrant is currently dangerous,” and so there would be no purpose in proving a fact that is not material to the statute.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed briefs in both cases, arguing that official release of already public information cannot constitute punishment.

The court also rejected the holding by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.), which found the law unconstitutional, that the listing on a sex offender registry is similar to probation or supervised release. Kennedy noted that there are no restrictions on movement placed on those on the registry; instead, they are only required to notify the state when their residence or other information changes.

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the law deprives registrants of some of their liberty and is clearly punitive. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, also dissented because the act constitutes punishment because of the obligations it imposes.

(Smith v. Doe; Connecticut Dep’t of Public Safety v. Doe) GL

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