STOP SEX OFFENDERS | NJ: Sex-offender registry on hold
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NJ: Sex-offender registry on hold.

November 21, 2000

TRENTON -- Lawmakers yesterday postponed a vote on a bill to create an Internet directory of sex offenders so they could amend it to satisfy real estate agents who feared it would subject them to lawsuits.

The sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Joel Weingarten, R-Millburn, agreed to amend it to clarify that home sellers and real estate agents could not be held liable for failing to tell a buyer that a sex offender lives near a home.

Weingarten said he expects the bill to be posted for a vote during the next Assembly session Dec. 11. State voters on Nov. 7 voted by a 3-to-1 margin to amend the state constitution to clear the way for the Internet directory.

Currently, those notified by police about a sex offender under Megan's Law are prohibited from telling anyone else. The law therefore protects home sellers from any charge that they failed to disclose information about a sex offender.

Weingarten's bill, which is backed by Gov. Christie Whitman, would require the state to list all sex offenders registered under Megan's Law on the Internet with their photos, addresses, crimes and risk classifications. Real estate agents fear their protection under the current law would disappear once sex offender information becomes public.

The amendment clarifies that it would be the home buyer's responsibility to research the Internet directory. Weingarten said he was willing to amend the bill for the real estate agents but wants no further delays.

"We want to make sure we can protect the public as broadly as we can as soon as we can," he said.

Jarrod Grasso, director of government affairs for the New Jersey Association of Realtors, said his organization supports Weingarten's bill.

"We believe the public has a right to know, prior to buying a house, what is going to be next door," Grasso said. "If I'm closing on a home and have three children, I don't want to find out the next day that there's a sex offender living next door."

But Grasso said it was appropriate to leave the research to the buyer. He said his association plans to print the Web address for the Internet directory on its home purchase contracts once the bill becomes law.

As it stands, all homeowners in a neighborhood where a sex offender lives must be notified by the county prosecutor, but a person with a contract to buy a home is not entitled to go to the prosecutor and ask about the neighborhood as a "homeowner." Only after the sale is closed does the buyer become entitled to notification.

The constitutional amendment approved Nov. 7 aimed to clear the way for lawmakers to expand notification under Megan's Law beyond the narrow restrictions imposed by state and federal courts.

The problem, however, is that the courts that have interpreted New Jersey's law -- including the state Supreme Court and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia -- have relied primarily on the U.S. Constitution in imposing restrictions to protect the privacy of offenders.

State Attorney General John J. Farmer Jr. acknowledges that legal challenges are inevitable but wants to test the limits of Megan's Law in federal court. Because a federal appeals court upheld an Internet directory of sex offenders in Tennessee, he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately will rule on the issue.

Source: New Jersey Online/The Times, by Peter Aseltine.