The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether to force states to evaluate cases individually before listing former sex offenders on registries meant to help people keep tabs on offenders living or working nearby.
The court's ruling on "Megan's laws" in more than 20 states could mean separate hearings to determine the risk posed by a sex criminal who has completed a prison sentence.
Each state has some form of sex offender registry named for the New Jersey child kidnapped, raped and killed in 1994 by a convicted sex offender who had moved in across the street. Her parents knew nothing of his history.
The Bush administration sided with Connecticut, as did each of the other states with similar laws, in asking the Supreme Court to restore or preserve public access to information about former sex offenders.
"Megan's laws serve vital government interests by assisting law enforcement and enabling American communities to better protect themselves, and in particular their children," the administration's top Supreme Court lawyer wrote in court papers.
Connecticut set up an Internet list that grouped all convicted sex criminals together, based solely on their court records.
Lawyers for two anonymous former Connecticut sex offenders argued that the system violates the Constitution's guarantee that government will not take away "life, liberty or property without due process of law."
"It's important to remember that this case is not about preventing sex offender registries from existing," said Shelley Sadin, a lawyer representing the men. They also are being defended by the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It is about making sure that sex offender laws are fair and constitutional ... that they do not post the current photos of people who are not dangerous alongside people who are dangerous ... without a hearing about whether or not they belong on that list," said Sadin.
A federal judge struck down Connecticut's sex offender registry last year, finding that it violated the constitutional rights of past offenders to place their names on the list without a chance to prove they are no longer dangerous to society.
The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the registry is no longer publicly available.
Federal law requires states to have a registry, or face a cut in federal funding.
Some states provide the public with names of only those offenders deemed dangerous; those laws are not at issue in the case now before the court. Other states have hybrid laws, making the names public in the cases of serious sex crimes, but taking a case-by-case approach when the crime is considered less egregious. It is not clear whether those laws might be affected by the Supreme Court ruling, expected sometime next year.
The registries take conviction records already publicly available through police or court records, and compile them in one place. Information on Connecticut sex offenders is still publicly available on the old piecemeal basis.
"Key facts about sex offenders should be completely available to the public so people can be fully informed and children can be protected," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Monday. "There is a vital public interest in information about such convicted offenders, whose rate of repeating the crime is extremely high."
Connecticut's registry, created in 1998, let users search by town for lists of resident sex offenders. The registry included names, addresses and, in most cases, pictures of nearly 2,100 former criminals. The Web site received 150,000 hits per month, state police said.
Monday's case is the second involving Megan's law lists that the court will consider in the term that begins in October.
In the other case, the court will hear a separate constitutional challenge to laws in about a dozen states that publish personal information about convicted sex offenders on the Internet. The question in that case is whether such publicly available lists, which include names of people who long ago served their sentences, amount to unconstitutional retroactive punishment.
According to the Justice Department, laws similar to Connecticut's are in force in Alabama, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Monday's case is Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. John Doe, 01-1231.
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