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D.C.: Sex Offender Law Struck Down.


September 23, 2001

Judge Orders Police to Stop Publicizing Information About Released Perpetrators

By Spencer S. Hsu

A federal judge has ruled that the District's method of classifying sex offenders under "Megan's Law" is unconstitutional and has told police to stop releasing detailed information about 279 sex offenders and cease registering certain sex offenders who committed crimes while younger than 22.

The law, similar to those passed in all 50 states, is named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and strangled in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender in her neighborhood. It requires that the public be notified when sex offenders are released into the community.

But U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said the District's method of deciding how widely to publicize the names, photographs and home and work addresses of offenders -- sorting them into three classes of offenses -- violates their due process rights because they are not granted court hearings or the opportunity to argue whether notification is necessary to protect the public.

Laws in other states assess offenders individually, rather than by the type of sex crimes they committed.

Huvelle's ruling, released Wednesday, still requires sex offenders who are released from prison to register with the District's parole agency for 10 years to life, depending on the severity of their crimes. But the judge enjoined the District from publicizing that information, whether by answering inquiries, releasing registration lists at police stations, posting names on the Internet or notifying schools, day-care centers, victims or other vulnerable populations.

"While the government unquestionably has a valid and laudable interest in protecting the public, and in particular our youth, from being victimized," Huvelle wrote, "the beneficence of its aims [does] not excuse it from according to the offenders subject to the statute the due process protections to which they are entitled under the constitution."

Huvelle's ruling applies to at least 279 offenders who lived in the District as of March 27.

Under the District law, three classes of sex offenders existed: 119 offenders were classified as Class A, 149 were Class B and 11 were Class C. All were listed on a police registry available to the public.

Class A offenders committed sex abuse, rape or murder or were determined to be sexual psychopaths. They were subject to the most widespread public notice, including notification to neighborhood schools and vulnerable groups and publication on the Internet.

Class B offenders committed offenses against minors, wards, patients or clients, and their names were published on the Internet before Huvelle issued a temporary restraining order to the city in February to halt that practice.

Class C offenders committed other sex offenses and were deemed less likely to commit future offenses.

Despite the Wednesday order, the D.C. police sex offender registry, at www.mpdc.dc.gov/serv/sor/sexoffender.shtm, still showed the names and addresses of 146 offenders yesterday.

Arabella W. Teal, principal deputy corporation counsel for the District, said yesterday that the office was aware of the ruling but was not prepared to comment on it. A spokesman for the office said that an appeal was possible.

The case was filed on behalf of five offenders by the D.C. public defender's office, which argued that the plaintiffs were subject to stigma, legal burdens and loss of privacy and employment prospects disproportionate to the likelihood that they would commit a new offense.

"The judge ruled that the District cannot cut corners and deem all offenders dangerous without individual assessment and giving people hearings," said Robert L. Wilkins, formerly with the public defender's office and now in private practice. "We had offenders who had been deemed rehabilitated by the system, yet they were still being labled dangerous by the statute."

The judge also said that under sentencing reforms passed last year, people with convictions for sex offenses committed before Aug. 5, 2000, and set aside by the D.C. Youth Rehabilitation Act -- which permits some people younger than 22 to have convictions set aside once they complete their sentences -- do not fall under the city's Megan's Law. That ruling applied to two of the plaintiffs in the case.

Two were found not guilty by reason of insanity for separate assaults in 1969 and 1982 and were sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital. The fifth plaintiff pleaded guilty last year to lewd acts with a 15-year-old boy. His term of five years of supervised probation was terminated early after he received treatment, Wilkins said.


Source: 2001 The Washington Post Company