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
"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
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
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
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,
"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
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
"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
"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.