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Sex offender data not private, but distribution must be limited

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Sex offender data not private, but distribution must be limited 04/05/99 THIRD CIRCUIT--A federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled in…

Sex offender data not private, but distribution must be limited

04/05/99

THIRD CIRCUIT–A federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled in mid-March that prior sex offenders have no constitutional right of privacy in their home addresses and compilations of other personal, biographical information which are collected by police and must be made available to the community under the New Jersey Megan’s Law.

However, the fact that certain persons need notification does not mean the information should be disclosed to persons without a need to see it, the court said. It sent the case back to the federal District Court in Trenton, instructing it to consider whether law enforcement authorities adequately limited release of the information to only persons in the community who needed to be notified.

The appeals court found that prior offenders’ fundamental privacy rights, which they called “privacy interests in their most intimate relationships — those with their spouses, children, parents, and other family members,” were not violated hen law enforcement officers notified the community of personal details in addition to the sex offense information required by Megan’s Law.

The decision expanded upon the appeals panel’s 1997 ruling that notification to the community of past crimes by prior sex offenders does not violate any constitutional right of privacy. The U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to that case.

Four prior sex offenders, including minors, sued the attorney general of New Jersey in June 1997 in federal District Court in Trenton over the release to the community of home addresses and other personal data. They filed a series of motions under seal hoping to give the court evidence that they and their families had suffered “serious adverse consequences” because of the release of their home addresses.

Judge John Fullam wrote that he concurred solely because the panel was bound by its earlier Megan’s Law ruling. However, he noted that the records submitted under seal demonstrate that the “theoretical and ‘feel-good’ benefits of Megan’s Law” may, in the long run, “be overwhelmed by the law’s consequences.”

Saying that statutes enabling vigilantism may “be at odds” with constitutional values, he suggested that an expanded record on remand might provide a basis for “ameliorative measures.” (Paul P. v. Verniero; attorney for the New Jersey attorney general, Joseph Yannotti, Trenton)