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Setback For Megan's Law

The abduction and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a convicted sex offender living quietly in her neighborhood enraged parents across the nation. Seven years later, more than two dozen states have Internet registry laws to let neighbors know when a sex offender moves in.

But in New Jersey, where the original Megan's Law was passed, a judge ruled Friday that posting those sex offenders' addresses violates their privacy.

The ruling undercuts a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed last year by New Jersey voters to let the state post offenders' addresses, physical descriptions and criminal histories. The amendment had been aimed at getting around other court restrictions placed on the 1994 Megan's Law.

“I think it almost renders it useless,” said state Sen. Peter Inverso, a Republican who pushed for the original Megan's Law.

The amendment was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the public defender's office, who said it allowed the state to broadcast what federal courts have said is confidential information.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Joseph E. Irenas wrote that an offender's constitutional right to privacy outweighs any state need to make their personal information widely available.

He said existing laws do allow prosecutors to release street addresses to a sex offender's immediate neighbors. However, “providing unlimited access via the Internet to the name of the specific street, block of residence, apartment building, or even municipality in which a registrant resides may permit numerous individuals with no legitimate public safety need to quickly ascertain an offender's precise home address,” he wrote.

Chuck Davis, spokesman for the state attorney general, said the state had not decided whether to appeal.

The judge's ruling applies only to the Internet registry and does not affect other aspects of Megan's Law.

As modified by the courts over the years, Megan's Law groups convicted sex offenders into three tiers. For those labeled most at risk of committing another crime, it lets prosecutors provide the offender's name, address and photo to people in a carefully defined area. Lower-risk offenders get more privacy. All offenders must register with police when they get out of prison.

A federal version of Megan's Law, signed by President Clinton in 1996, requires states to notify communities when convicted sex offenders live in the area.

New Jersey officials have said that about two dozen other states have taken the law a step further by setting up some form of Internet sex offender registry, and that some of those Web sites provide addresses.

While Friday's ruling still allows the posting of offenders' names, Maureen Kanka, Megan's mother, said it effectively prevents people from knowing whether a sex offender lives in their neighborhood.

The restricted registry will give people better access to information than they have now, Kanka said, but they'll havto go back to court to get the full benefit of the law.

“It's how it was with the original law. It's something we'll just have to deal with,” Kanka said. The man who killed her daughter in 1994, Jesse Timmendequas, is now on New Jersey's death row.

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