WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to consider the constitutionality of Internet registries that list the names of convicted sex offenders who long ago completed their punishment.
The ruling could affect sex-offender laws in about a dozen states that publish the names, addresses or other personal information about convicted sex offenders on the Internet. The question is how far states may go in requiring previously convicted sex offenders to be included in a state registry that is available to anyone.
The court accepted an appeal from Alaska, where part of the state's sex-offender law was struck down last year.
Alaska's sex-offender law, modeled after New Jersey's pioneering "Megan's Law," allows the public to track known sex offenders. All states have some version of a sex-offender law.
In general, such laws have withstood court challenges if they were narrowly directed at improving public safety. It is unconstitutional to punish someone twice for the same crime.
When it was passed in 1994, Alaska's law was made retroactive 10 years, meaning people who already had served their prison terms would be listed by name in an Internet registry open to friends, neighbors or employers.
The law, expanded in 1998, requires previously convicted sex offenders to provide their names and addresses to the state as often as four times a year, and makes it a crime to fail to register.
Men identified as John Doe I and John Doe II, along with one man's wife, challenged the retroactive law as unconstitutional punishment after the fact.
John Doe I was convicted of sexually abusing his daughter when she was between 9 and 11 years old. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and was released in 1990. John Doe II was convicted of sexually abusing his daughter when she was 14. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and released in 1990.
The Does lost the first round in federal court in 1999, but the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling last year. Alaska's law was unconstitutionally punitive when applied retroactively, the appeals court found. The court pointed in particular to the publication of the men's names on the Internet.
"In Alaska, information as to all sex offenders is made available worldwide on the Internet, without any restriction and without regard to whether the individual poses a future risk," the appeals court wrote.
"Broadcasting the information about all past sex offenders on the Internet does not in any way limit its dissemination to those to whom the particular offender may be of concern," the court wrote.
The appeals court found that the Alaska Legislature intended the sex-offender registry to be a boon to public safety, not be a punishment. The way the law worked in practice made it unconstitutional, the appeals judges said.