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Judge strikes down New Jersey's Internet sex offender registry

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Freedom of Information         Jan 2, 2002    

Judge strikes down New Jersey’s Internet sex offender registry

  • A federal judge ruled that unrestricted public access to sex offenders’ home addresses through the Internet violates their privacy.

Federal district judge Joseph Irenas in Camden, N.J., struck down a portion of the state’s Internet sex offender registry on Dec. 6 as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy because it would have given the public unrestricted access to the sex offenders’ exact home addresses.

The Internet registry would have been effective on Jan. 1.

However, the ruling left intact the state’s original notification processes, which distribute information to people or agencies likely to encounter offenders.

The plaintiffs were all convicted of sex offenses in New Jersey and subject to its version of Megan’s Law. They sued, challenging the constitutionality of recent amendments of the state’s constitution and of Megan’s Law that allowed the registry to be publicly available through the Internet.

The state Legislature created the registry this year after state voters amended the state’s constitution with a 2000 referendum to permit disclosure of registry information. The registry did not disclose an offender’s place of employment or school. It also did not replace the state’s original notification process.

The original notification process classifies each sex offender in terms of his or her risk of a repeat offense and the need for community notification. There are three categories of risk: low, moderate and high.

All sex offenders must furnish local police with personal information, including name, social security number, race, exact address of legal residence, and dates and places of employment, but only the information about the high risk class members and some moderate risk class members is disclosed to the public.

For high risk offenders, county prosecutors notify all members of the public likely to encounter the registrant, including members of the offender’s surrounding neighborhood and places he is likely to frequent.

For moderate risk offenders, county prosecutors notify law enforcement agencies, registered schools, day care centers, summer camps and other organizations providing care for potential victims. Some moderate risk offenders who committed a single offense were exempt from the disclosure requirement.

Plaintiffs argued that the availability of their home addresses on the Internet registry violated their constitutional right to privacy. They also argued that the law was applied retroactively to offenses committed prior to its enactment, thus imposing more criminal punishment.

The court held that original registry did not violate the constitution, so long as the actual intent and effect of the legislation was not to impose additional punishment and the release of plaintiffs’ home addresses was limited to those persons with a statutorily defined need for this information. Because the Internet registry would have allowed disclosure of plaintiffs’ home addresses to the public at large, the court prohibited further disclosure through the Internet of any information identifying the house or apartment number, street, zip code and municipality in which the offenders reside.

(A.A. et al. v. State of New Jersey) MM

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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