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Megan's Law faces high-court test

All 50 states have versions of the legislation, but critics say it violates protected rights. The justices hear two cases Wednesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 2002


When 7-year-old Megan Kanka disappeared from her quiet suburban New Jersey neighborhood in July 1994, no one knew that a twice-convicted child molester lived across the street.

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After the man confessed to raping and murdering Megan, state lawmakers responded by empowering residents throughout the state to ascertain where convicted sex offenders lived. It is called Megan's Law, and versions of it have since been adopted by the federal government and all 50 states.

While the law's purpose is to help parents protect their children, critics say they violate sex offenders' constitutional rights.

The US Supreme Court Wednesday is set to take a close look at versions of Megan's Laws in Alaska and Connecticut to determine whether they strike the proper constitutional balance between community safety and the rights of convicted sex offenders who have completed their punishments.

The two cases, being heard back-to-back, are among the most important of the high court's current term. They touch on an emotional issue being followed closely by law enforcement officials, civil libertarians, and parents.

To critics, the registration laws resemble the Puritans' practice of publicly shaming wrongdoers by forcing adulteresses, for example, to wear a scarlet "A."

To supporters, the measures offer a tool to parents to protect their children from those who would prey on them.

The court challenge

In the Alaska case, Smith v. Doe, the high court will consider whether that state's sexual-offender registration law violates the constitutional ban on "ex post facto" laws that increase the punishment for an offense after the prior existing punishment for that same offense has already been served.

In the Connecticut case, Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, the justices will examine whether those listed on the state's sexual-offender registry are constitutionally entitled to an individualized determination of their current danger to the community before being listed.

"This case [Connecticut] is about publicly branding each respondent a 'Registered Sex Offender' ..., conveying the message to the public that he poses a continuing danger to public safety," says Shelley Sadin in her brief to the court challenging the law.

Ms. Sadin says Connecticut is altering the legal rights and status of sex offenders without offering them an opportunity to disprove the charge that they are dangerous.

Not everyone on the list will commit another crime or continue to be dangerous in the future, she says.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is arguing his state's case before the high court, says the sexual-offender list is an accurate reflection of court records. He says release of those public records to members of the public does not suddenly entitle convicted sex offenders to a new level of rights.

"Every person on the registry has been convicted of an offense that is extraordinarily serious after a full and fair proceeding," Mr. Blumenthal says. "There is no constitutional requirement that distinctions be made between them based on predictions of dangerousness."