WASHINGTON — State laws designed to use the Internet to notify parents of the presence of convicted rapists and child molesters in their own neighborhoods do not violate the constitutional rights of the listed sex offenders.
In two major decisions announced Wednesday, the US Supreme Court for the first time upheld the constitutionality of so-called Megan's Laws. The court said such measures provide an important service that helps protect society from those who would prey on its weakest members.
Even though the measures create significant burdens for sex offenders, the court said such laws do not amount to a form of ex post facto punishment, nor do they violate the Constitution's due process requirements.
The justices affirmed Megan's Laws in two states: It upheld Connecticut's law by a vote of 9 to 0 and upheld Alaska's legislation in a 6-to-3 decision.
"This decision is a victory for children against the continuing, serious threat of sex offenders, here in Connecticut and throughout the country," says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "Today's decision will be of historic significance nationwide."
Similar laws have been adopted in all 50 states and by the federal government. They are named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was abducted and murdered in her suburban New Jersey neighborhood in 1994 by a man who lived across the street and had been twice convicted of sex offenses against young girls. No one was aware of the neighbor's criminal past.
To prevent such crimes, states have created website lists of those who have been convicted of sex crimes. Sex offenders are required to register with local police and notify the authorities whenever they move to a new location.
In Connecticut, the law was challenged by a convicted sex offender identified only as John Doe. He claimed the Internet listing violated his due process rights because he was never given an individualized hearing to disprove the suggestion that he might represent a continuing danger to the community. A federal judge and a three-judge federal appeals court panel agreed with him, striking down the law.
In overturning those decisions, the high court said that the key factor leading to sex offenders being listed in Connecticut is a prior conviction for a sex offense - not whether an individual might be dangerous in the future. The state does not attempt to make such a determination, and it would be improper to assign such a requirement.
"Due process does not require the opportunity to prove a fact that is not material to the state's statutory scheme," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court. "Even if [John Doe] could prove that he is not likely to be currently dangerous, Connecticut has decided that the registry information of all sex offenders - currently dangerous or not - must be publicly disclosed," the chief justice writes. "Unless [John Doe] can show that that substantive rule of law is defective [by conflicting with a provision of the Constitution], any hearing on current dangerousness is a bootless exercise."
The Alaska law was challenged by two convicted sex offenders who had served their prison sentences prior to passage of that state's version of Megan's Law.
The two men, known only as John Doe I and John Doe II, argued that the law was a form of extra - or ex post facto - punishment imposed after they had already completed their punishment. It did not recognize the possibility, they said, that they might be rehabilitated and no longer pose a danger to others.
A federal judge found no ex post facto violation, but an appeals court panel reversed, striking down the law.
In finding that the law did not violate constitutional protections, the high court said the Alaska Megan's Law is a civil, nonpunitive regulatory effort to account for the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders.
"Nothing on the statute's face suggests that the legislature sought to create anything other than a civil scheme designed to protect the public from harm," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Justice Kennedy also said the fact that the measure applied to sex offenders who had already been released from prison did not render it an extra form of punishment.
And he disagreed with opponents of the law who likened the measure to shaming punishments used during the Colonial period, such as forcing adulterers to wear a badge in public.
"In contrast to those punishments," Kennedy writes, "the [Alaska] act's stigma results not from public display for ridicule and shaming but from dissemination of accurate information about a criminal record, most of which is already public."
• Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.