Written by a Seth Okin Attorney at Law Staff Writer
July 8, 2014
A state appellate court ruling could result in the removal of one-fourth of the names on Maryland’s current sex offender registry. The ruling, issued last week, expanded on a previous ruling that found the addition of so-called sex offenders from before the time that the list was created is a violation of Maryland’s State Constitution.
The same court declared last year that state authorities could not enforce the registration of one man who challenged the order based on the fact that his crime occurred before the state’s database was created in October of 1995. That man, identified in court records as John Doe, pleaded guilty in 2006 to a single count of child sexual abuse for a 1984 incident. To force him to register, the state’s top court found, would be a violation of his constitutional rights.
In the June 30th ruling, the appellate court upheld its previous decision and went on to find that it applies to all convicted sex offenders who committed their crimes prior to 1995; or roughly 1,800 individuals who are now on Maryland’s sex offender registry. Whether the removal of the names will happen automatically, or at the request of the individuals, was not immediately known.
The announcement of the ruling was cheered by those who argue that the registries are punitive and do little to protect the public. Victims’ rights groups, however, were understandably upset as they have long argued that sex offender databases are a helpful tool that can alert parents to potential predators in their neighborhoods.
Although removing the names may seem unjust to the victims of the crimes, the court was very clear in its assessment of the state’s constitutional requirements, and was correct in its findings.
Aside from the ruling, the case has also brought to light a growing number of people have begun to acknowledge flaws in the sex-offender database system. In a 2007 report published by an international rights group, Human Rights Watch, researchers found that the majority of sexual abuse against children occurs by an acquaintance rather than a stranger, severely limiting the effectiveness of such lists. The report went on to note that crimes that can result in a person having to register as a sex offender in many U.S. states range wildly, from public urination to child rape. This creates large discrepancies in the type of people placed on the lists and has resulted in extremely punitive measures against some who were guilty of a relatively minor offense. Additionally, there is no way for a person that has proved to be rehabilitated to be removed from the lists and, finally, it appears as though politicians passed the registry laws in a bid to appeal to voters without taking the time to understand the full legal consequences. The report, “US: Sex Offender Laws May Do More Harm Than Good” can be found here.
In her arguments to the Maryland Court of Appeals, defense attorney Nancy S. Forster, told CBS Baltimore that her clients have likened the registry as “being on probation for life.” This is antithetical to the basic premise of our criminal justice system which provides that once a convicted individual has served their sentence, and paid the price for their mistakes, they are free to rebuild their lives. Without this basic right, there is no justice and there is no motivation for reform. As a Maryland criminal defense firm, we understand the concerns of victims’ and their supporters and are deeply sympathetic, but we wholeheartedly agree with the high court’s ruling.