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Judge bars public-notification requirements of Megan's Law

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Sep 26, 2001    

Judge bars public-notification requirements of Megan’s Law

  • A federal court ordered District officials to stop the release of information on sex offenders without holding hearings.

A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19 held unconstitutional the city’s process for notifying the public of the presence of convicted sex offenders as required under the local Megan’s Law and ordered District officials to stop releasing the personal information and whereabouts of sex offenders without hearings.

However, sex offenders would still be required to register with the District, offering various details including their home, work and school addresses and personal descriptions including identifying marks on the body.

Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle wrote that the way the District’s mandate for release of all personal information it collects from sex offenders without giving them an opportunity to argue against disclosure violates civil liberties.

She ruled that the District’s procedure for public notification hinders the offenders’ rights to choose where they want to work and live. The disclosures also made it difficult for offenders to obtain and keep employment or federally funded housing, she wrote.

Megan’s Law requires all sex offenders who have been convicted of sex crimes against children to register with the local and state police departments. The law also compels the state and federal governments to make information on convicted sex offenders available to the public.

The federal Megan’s Law does not mandate specifically how states will apply the law and they do so differently. Some states use an offender-based reporting system, where a judge hears each offender’s case and determines the extent to which personal information is disclosed. However, the District and some states use an offense-based system of reporting, where sex offenders are classified into categories, and the extent of public notification is determined by the severity of the offense committed.

In her opinion, Huvelle noted that states using the offender-based system are better able to protect the rights of offenders by assessing each individual offender and the particular facts involved on a case-by-case basis. After review, a determination would be made whether it would be fair to release personal details to the public.

She said that the District’s failure to provide a hearing and determination of what information may be disclosed through public-notification processes in each offender’s situation denied rights to each offender.

“[A] sex offender’s status has undergone a fundamental change with the enactment of [Megan’s Law],” she wrote. “His relationship with the criminal justice system has been prolonged for at least ten years, if not for life; the extent of his contact with the State has increased significantly; and his ability to maintain his privacy and anonymity has been severely jeopardized. These changes, coupled with the stigma of public notification, clearly infringe on the liberty interests of these individuals.”

Five plaintiffs filed a class-action suit against the city to prevent their registration records from being disclosed under the law, claiming that it was a violation of their constitutional rights. The law required them to report to local authorities any changes in their personal information for 10 years if they committed a misdemeanor sex offense or for the rest of their lives if they committed a felony sex offense.

They sued the city claiming that the registration requirements of the city’s Megan’s Law subject them to stigma, violate their privacy rights and restrict their rights to pursue chosen employment.

The city plans to appeal the decision.

(John Doe #1 v. Anthony Williams) MM

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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