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RCASA’s Friday Facts: Megan’s Law

In Friday Facts on November 11, 2011 at 6:00 am

Megan’s Laws are named for Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old girl from New Jersey who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1994 by a neighbor who, unknown to the victim’s family, had been previously convicted for sex offenses against children. Megan’s Laws are state and federal statutes that require convicted sex offenders to register with local police. Sex offenders are required to register with local police and to notify law enforcement authorities whenever they move to a new location. The statutes establish a notification process to provide information about sex offenders to law enforcement agencies and, when appropriate, to the public. The type of notification is based on an evaluation of the risk to the community from a particular offender.

The brutality of the crimes in the Megan Kanka case provided the impetus for laws that mandate registration of sex offenders and corresponding community notification. In 1994, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, Title 17, 108 Stat.2038, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 14071. This precursor to a federal Megan’s Law conditioned certain federal law enforcement funds on state adoption of sexoffender registration laws and set minimum standards for state programs. By 1996, every State, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government had enacted some variation of Megan’s Law.

Under the federal Megan’s Law statute, states have discretion to establish criteria for disclosure, but they must make private and personal information on registered sex offenders available to the public. The premise of Megan’s Law is that communities will be better able to protect their children if they are informed of the descriptions and whereabouts of high-risk sex offenders. Notification of sex-offender information to the community assists law enforcement in investigations, provides legal grounds to detain known sex offenders, may deter sex offenders from committing new offenses, and offers citizens information that they can use to protect their children.

Megan’s Laws were not created without controversy. Opponents argue that the statutes encourage acts of vigilantism and do not give offenders who have paid their dues the chance to merge back into society. But actions taken against the convicted sex offender, including vandalism of property, verbal or written threats, or actual physical violence against the offender, their family, or employer, could lead to arrest and prosecution for criminal acts. Despite these concerns, however, federal and state legislatures have continued to reinforce and broaden the scope of these statutes.

On May 17, 1996, federal efforts to strengthen the Jacob Wetterling Act got a boost when President bill clinton signed an amendment to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (42 U.S.C. 14071); the amendment is known as Megan’s Law. This legislation directs all state legislatures to adopt laws requiring convicted sex offenders to register with their local law enforcement agency after release. Additionally, the federal Megan’s Law mandates states to grant access to sex-offender registries to the public. Although sex-offender registration for law enforcement purposes had been required previously, the idea of community notification was relatively new.

The legislation has undergone many adaptations in the states. While the details of state Megan’s Laws differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, conviction of any one or more of the following offenses will require convicts to register pursuant to Megan’s Laws:

  • aggravated sexual assault,
  • sexual assault,
  • aggravated criminal sexual contact,
  • endangering the welfare of a child by engaging in sexual conduct that would impair or debauch the morals of the child,
  • luring or enticing,
  • kidnapping (if the victim is a minor and the offender not a parent),
  • criminal restraint, and
  • false imprisonment.

Megan’s Laws have guidelines that list factors law that enforcement agencies are to consider when weighing the risk of re-offense. These include some or all of the following:

  • post-incarceration supervision,
  • the status of therapy or counseling,
  • criminal background,
  • degree of remorse for criminal acts,
  • substance abuse,
  • employment or schooling status,
  • psychological or psychiatric profile, and
  • any history of threats or of stalking locations where children congregate.

State sex offender registries include sex offenders’ names, descriptions and photographs, addresses, places of employment or school (if applicable), descriptions of the offenders’ vehicles and license plate numbers, and brief descriptions of the offenses for which the sex offender was convicted. Prosecutors and courts are responsible for determining who should receive direct notice of the presence of a particular individual in a community.

In 2003, 39 states provided access to sexoffender information in searchable databases on the internet. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Vermont either did not provide Internet access or restricted access. Various law enforcement agencies and some private citizens or civic groups also publish listings that are specific to counties or communities. Most, if not all, of these sites are freely available regardless of the residence of the individual who is searching for information.

As with the state laws themselves, state sexoffender databases have little or no uniformity. Some, like those for Alaska, Connecticut, and Florida, include photographs, physical descriptions, dates of birth, and details concerning the offenses for which offenders were convicted. The Virginia sex-offender list stores home and work addresses, while Indiana’s contains only the city where the sex offender resides.

Most of the databases permit searching by zip code or name. Kansas allows searching by partial zip codes, while Alaska and Delaware allow searching by street name or by partial address, and Indiana permits searching by social security number.

While Megan’s Laws do provide some measure of increased security for some parents and individuals who are concerned about the likelihood of convicted sex offenders in their midst, they cannot guarantee the public’s protection from offenders who are determined to re-offend. The statutes cannot even guarantee absolute accuracy of the information contained on their registries. While offenders must register with the local police upon release from prison, many give incomplete or even false details. Others have given their details, but have traveled to areas where no one has been warned about them for the purposes of committing additional sex offenses. Critics of the measures point out that only 80 percent of pedophiles comply with registration requirements in the US, as compared with 97 percent in the United Kingdom. They also note that most cases of child abuse occur within the family, and suggest that victims might stay silent if they know that a family member will be prosecuted. But in spite of these arguments, Megan’s Laws receive widespread support in communities and legislatures.

In addition to compliance and enforcement problems with Megan’s Laws, privacy advocates have challenged existing public-records laws that allow the availability of personal data via websites. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down major decisions upholding the constitutionality of Megan’s Laws. The Court upheld Connecticut’s Megan’s Law by a vote of 9 to 0 and upheld Alaska’s legislation in a 6-to-3 decision.

In Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe, 123 S. Ct. 1160, 155 L. Ed. 2d 98, 71 USLW 4125, 71 USLW 4158, 3 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 1957, 2003 Daily Journal D.A.R. 2471, 16 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 140 (2003). Connecticut’s Megan’s Law was challenged by a convicted sex offender, john doe. Doe protested that the Internet listing violated his due process rights because he was never given a hearing to disprove the suggestion that he might represent a continuing danger to the community. A federal judge and a three-judge federal appeals court panel agreed with Doe, striking down the law. But the Supreme Court overturned those decisions, stating that the key factor causing sex offenders to be listed in Connecticut’s Internet registry is a prior conviction for a sex offense, not whether an individual might present a continued danger to the community.

The court said that statutes such as Connecticut’s Megan’s Law provide an important service that helps to protect society from those who would prey on its weakest members. Even though Megan’s Laws create certain burdens for sex offenders, the court wrote that such laws do not amount to a form of ex post facto punishment, nor do they violate the Constitution’s due process requirements.

In the Alaska case, Smith v. Doe, 123 S. Ct. 1140, 155 L. Ed. 2d 164, 71 USLW 4125, 71 USLW 4182, 3 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 1974, 2003 Daily Journal D.A.R. 2474, 16 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S. 142 (2003) (No. 01-729). Alaska’s Megan’s Law was challenged by two convicted sex offenders who already had served their prison sentences prior to passage of that state’s version of the law. The two men, John Doe I and John Doe II, argued that the law was another form of punishment imposed after they already had completed their punishment. They claimed that the law failed to recognize the possibility that they might be rehabilitated and that they might no longer pose a danger to others. In previous litigation, a federal judge found no ex post facto violation, but an appeals court panel reversed, striking down the law.

The high court wrote that Alaska’s Megan’s Law is a civil, non-punitive regulatory effort to account for the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated that there was nothing in the statute to suggest that the legislature intended to create anything other than a civil scheme designed to protect the public from harm. And even though the law applied to sex offenders who already had been released from prison, it was not an extra form of punishment.

In these two cases, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively disposed of the principal legal arguments against Megan’s Laws. In short, the Court found that state laws that are designed to use the Internet to notify parents of the presence of convicted rapists and child molesters in their own neighborhoods do not violate the constitutional rights of the listed sex offenders.

Further readings

Ahearn, Laura A. 2001. Megan’s Law Nationwide and… The Apple of My Eye: Childhood Sexual Abuse Prevention Program. N.Y.: Prevention Press USA.

Cohen, Fred, and Elizabeth Rahmberg-Walsh. 2001. Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification: A ‘Megan’s Law’ SourceBook. Kingston, N.J.: Civic Research Institute.

Hodgson, James F., and Debra S. Kelley, eds. 2002. Sexual Violence: Policies, Practices, and Challenges in the United States and Canada. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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