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Supreme Court to examine Megan's Law

By The Associated Press

11.11.02

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear challenges for the first time this week to the federal mandate requiring convicted sex offenders to register with authorities and allow communities to know where they live.

Every state has a version of the federal requirement commonly known as Megan's Law, and challenges to it have pitted the rights of convicted sex offenders who have served their time against the desire of communities to protect their children.

There is also a public-information aspect to the controversy, in which the public's right to have access to public records about convicted sex offenders is weighed against the privacy rights of released offenders.

The law was named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by her neighbor — a twice-convicted sex offender.

The cases before the court on Nov. 13 originate in Connecticut and Alaska.

Connecticut defense lawyers say the law violates offenders' right to due process. In Alaska, a challenge says the law loads additional punishment on offenders and violates the constitution prohibition against retroactive punishment.

Laura Ahearn, director of the advocacy group Parents for Megan's Law, said the organization is watching the cases carefully.

"This is not a punishment, but merely a way for a government to protect its citizens from ones they know are a risk," she said.

The Connecticut ruling could affect 25 states with similar laws, possibly requiring the release of offenders' registry information to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

In Alaska, the ruling will determine if publishing sex offenders' information on the Internet amounts to unconstitutional punishment. About a dozen states have Internet registries, but it is unclear how many states may be vulnerable to the Alaska ruling.

Federal law requires that states disseminate information kept in the sex offender registry or face the loss of federal funding. Specific implementation is left to the states.

Connecticut published the information of all released, convicted sex offenders on an Internet site. Users could search a database of 2,100 entries by zip code or town.

The Web site was taken down after a federal court ruled sex offenders weren't granted a chance to prove they didn't belong on the list. A federal appeals court upheld the decision.

Lawyers for two offenders argue the Internet list has a stigmatizing effect.

"If the suggestion is that people on the list are dangerous, then there should be an opportunity to challenge placement on that list as a matter of fundamental fairness," said attorney Phil Tegeler.

But there is no guarantee that hearings can predict the likelihood that a sex offender will strike again, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal argued. "The single most reliable predictor of criminal behavior is the fact of a prior criminal history," he said.

Public defenders from New Jersey denounced Connecticut's approach.

"The 'one size fits all' approach that has been adopted in Connecticut and some other jurisdictions is unnecessary and grossly unfair," the state's acting public defender, Peter Garcia, wrote in a brief filed with the court.

Thirty-five states and the National Governor's Association have offered support to Connecticut's case.

The Alaska law requires convicted sex offenders to give their names and addresses to the state up to four times a year.

Two unidentified convicted offenders, along with one man's wife, challenged the law as punishment after the fact. The men were sentenced before the law went into effect but fell under its retroactive provisions.

Update

Supreme Court debates merits of Megan's laws
'What is irrational or unconstitutional about warning people about categories of people who may be dangerous?' Justice Antonin Scalia asks attorney for two sex offenders.  11.14.02

Previous

High court agrees to hear challenge to sex-offender list
Connecticut officials appealed after federal judge struck down state's registry.  05.20.02

Related

2002-2003 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of 2002-2003 U.S. Supreme Court term.  10.07.02

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