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Voters to decide on wide publicity for sex offenders .


November 1, 2000

Internet users who click onto the home page for Delaware's sex offender registry are just seconds away from seeing the names of 712 convicted sex offenders who have registered with law enforcement agencies in the state.

And anyone with a mouse, modem, and computer monitor in Florida, West Virginia, or Mississippi can do the same.

But New Jersey residents who want to find out if someone in their neighborhood has a history of sexual assault won't be able to find a Web site giving his or her name, photo, and physical characteristics.

Although Megan's Law originated in New Jersey, court rulings here have limited the amount and the ways in which residents can be notified about sex offenders living in the state.

Lawmakers, in turn, are asking voters on Election Day to amend the state constitution so they can pass laws they expect will circumvent some of the Megan's Law decisions handed down by the courts.

The ballot question asks that the Legislature be permitted to disclose information to the public about sex offenders' identity, whereabouts, physical characteristics, and criminal history. The ballot question does not mention the Internet, but lawmakers would be allowed to decide how that information is released. And bills have already been introduced suggesting that cyberspace be the vehicle.

Maureen Kanka, the mother of the 7-year-old Hamilton Township girl, Megan, who was raped and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived next door, said she is confident that voters will support the amendment, ending her long journey to help parents protect their children.

Shortly after notifications began in 1996, the federal courts blocked the notices while judges reviewed the constitutionality of the law. The court eventually ruled in favor of the state, rejecting arguments that notifying the public was another way of punishing sex offenders after they had served their prison sentences. But public defenders returned to court when the notification resumed, charging the information that was being released was broader than expected.

"It's been frustrating," Kanka said of the state and federal decisions restricting public notices in New Jersey in order to protect sex offenders' right to confidentiality. "But when we'll look at the end product [on the Internet], we'll have something better than we started out with. Maybe this has been a blessing in disguise."

Even though there isn't any organized support or opposition to the constitutional amendment, not everyone is pleased with the initiative.

Critics of Megan's Law say the amendment would gut nearly three years of court rulings that have shaped New Jersey's version of the law, which set out to strike a balance between the public's right to know and the privacy rights of sex offenders. Observers say those changes have allowed the New Jersey law to withstand constitutional challenges in federal court.

Among the most critical changes was a 1996 requirement that notifications be limited to the community or workplace of the sex offender. Critics say Internet postings would wipe out those protections.

But proponents of the amendment say approval of the ballot question will send a clear message to the courts that the public's right to know supersedes a sex offender's right to privacy.

Professor Ron Chen of Rutgers University Law School in Newark said he realizes that the ballot question will energize some voters. He predicted it would be approved, given that only one ballot question out of 26 has been rejected in the last decade.

But people should know, Chen argues, that it is unlikely an amendment to the state constitution will have a legal impact.

After all, he said, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which has given more weight to privacy issues than most courts, based its appellate rulings on the federal, not state, constitution.

"As far as I can tell, this amendment won't make any difference," Chen said, predicting that the courts would say the federal court would strike down the amendment. "The enthusiasm will be unrewarded in terms of a legal result. [The amendment] will just litter our state constitution with passions of the moment."

Sen. Peter A. Inverso, R-Mercer, one of the prime sponsors of the original Megan's Law in New Jersey, said he fears the new amendment will lead to more court challenges.

"The courts will tie up Megan's Law again," he said. "And with the militancy here with the ACLU and other attorneys, I just hope it doesn't impede Megan's Law from where it stands right now."

Chen and other legal and constitutional scholars also have questioned why every time lawmakers disagree with a court ruling, they decide to change the constitution. He noted that another movement is under way in the Legislature to amend the constitution again in 2001.

That measure seeks to allow lawmakers to pass legislation requiring doctors to notify a parent before any medical procedure or treatment is performed on a minor. Lawmakers started considering the bill after the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that a 1999 law requiring parental notification before an abortion is performed on a minor was unconstitutional.

"We shouldn't alter a constitution every time we disagree with a court decision," Chen said. "It trivializes the importance of our state constitution."


Copyright 2000 Bergen Record Corp., Trenton Bureau, by Ovetta Wiggins.