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Megan’s law withstands constitutional scrutiny

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    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Freedom of Information         Sep 20, 2000    

Megan’s law withstands constitutional scrutiny

  • Combined with new guidelines for enforcement, the New Jersey Megan’s Law survives a constitutional privacy challenge.

Sexual offender Paul P. and four other fictitiously named plaintiffs will continue to have their home addresses disseminated to members of the community as part of New Jersey’s sex offender registration, under a federal appellate court ruling released in early September.

The five plaintiffs challenged the statute, known as Megan’s Law, that requires convicted sexual offenders to register their name, home address and other personal information with the local police chief. They alleged the provision of the law authorizing the publication of personal information violated a constitutionally protected privacy right.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) upheld the constitutionality of the statute, but only after it received assurances that the plaintiffs’ privacy rights would be adequately protected. The assurances came in the form of state attorney general guidelines, which local authorities must follow when enforcing the notification provision of the registration statute.

The guidelines, promulgated in March, require a person requesting the home address of a registered offender to first agree to submit to the court’s jurisdiction, comply with Megan’s law and comply with the court’s order enforcing the law. In the event that a person does not agree to the mandated terms, then the police will provide the street name of the registered offender’s residence rather than the exact mailing address.

In its opinion, the Third Circuit identified the release of one’s home address as the only piece of personal information that potentially violates the constitution. However, the court, drawing an analogy to the public accessibility to arrest records, held the greater state interest of protecting the public compelled disclosure because the presence of convicted sexual offenders living in society posed a threat to children. And after reviewing the guidelines, the court ruled they sufficiently protected any privacy interest the registered sexual offenders may have in keeping their personal information private.

New Jersey’s Megan’s Law, the first in the nation, requires sexual offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies when they move into an area. When registering, an offender must provide his name, age, race, sex, date of birth, height, weight, hair color, eye color, address and place of employment. This information is then disseminated to various persons in the community, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Only local police have access to information about the lowest-risk classification of offenders. In the case of sexual offenders classified as a moderate-risk, the police must provide the information to organizations that care for children, such as schools and day care facilities. In the case of an offender classified as a high-risk, the police have an affirmative obligation to inform anyone in the community who may come in contact with the person.

(Paul P. v. Farmer) CC

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