Supreme Court hears challenge to Alaska's sex-offender registry law

Convicted molester says law is retroactive, therefore unconstitutional

Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2002

ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Supreme Court hears a case Wednesday challenging Alaska's sex offender registry law.

The law is being challenged by a man who sexually molested a young girl 20 years ago. The man, known in court documents as John Doe I, pleaded no contest and served time in prison. Four years after his release the Alaska Legislature created the sex offender registry law.

Alaska attorneys Verne Rupright and Darryl Thompson say the registration law amounts to retroactive punishment. They will argue that it violates the Constitution's prohibition on ex post facto, or after the fact, penalties.

"You've got guys who had already gone through the system, treatment and all that. They never anticipated they'd be reporting to the government four times a year for the rest of their lives," said Rupright, of Wasilla. "All the information concerning them is now available at a keystroke."

The case has nationwide significance because all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some version of the registration requirement.

Proponents say the registries help parents protect children from pedophiles. Civil libertarians complain they violate privacy rights, expose ex-offenders and their families to vigilante violence, and impose new punishments for old crimes.

The Alaska case the Supreme Court hears Wednesday, Smith vs. Doe, concerns the retroactive application of the law.

Congress spurred the creation of sex offender registries in 1994, when it required states to adopt a registration program or lose anti-crime funds. Two years later, Congress added a requirement that communities must be notified when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

Alaska became the 32nd state to enact a sex offender registration law in 1994. The state, like many others, soon put its database online, allowing anyone with Internet access to easily search for sex offenders in Alaska by name, address or ZIP code. Each entry contains the offender's photo, home and work location, and the crime each was convicted of.

People convicted of more than one sex crime or one aggravated sex offense must submit quarterly notification to police for life. Those convicted of one nonaggravated offense have to submit annual notices for 15 years. The law reached back a decade, covering all sex offenders who hadn't completed their sentences by July 1984.

The Alaska John Doe I, his wife and another ex-offender filed a challenge even before the law went into effect.

The second man, dubbed John Doe II, was convicted in 1984 of sexually abusing a 14-year-old. Both men were sentenced to eight years in prison and released in 1990. Doe II completed a two-year treatment program.

A judge hearing Doe I's child custody case later concluded the man had been successfully rehabilitated.

Rupright, the attorney representing Doe II, said he met his client and others required to register when he was a state probation officer in the 1980s. Many committed their crimes long ago and haven't been in any trouble since, he said. That's the case with Doe II, he said.

"I know him. I know his family. There's no indication anything is afoul or amiss," he said.

In 2001, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that requiring the two Does to register does violate the Constitution's prohibition against ex post facto punishment.

The state's attorneys argue the law is constitutional because registration isn't, and was never intended to be, a punishment. Rather, the state says, it is a "regulatory law" intended to help society protect its children. The state's attorneys say lawmakers were trying to prevent future crimes when they passed the registration law. Experts on pedophiles say people who sexually abuse children tend to reoffend.

Whatever the Legislature's intent, the 9th Circuit Court concluded the registration law does punish, in part by making it so simple to search for sex offenders by their place of employment.

"By doing so, it creates a substantial probability that registrants will not be able to find work, because employers will not want to risk loss of business when the public learns that they have hired sex offenders," the appeals court found.

Rupright said the registries trouble ex-offenders in various ways.

One man on the registry found his business competitor was showing the entry to customers to gain a commercial advantage, Rupright said. In the case of abuse within families, the registry information can rob victims of their anonymity, he said, and registration makes it hard for an ex-convict to re-integrate into the community.

"Whole families, wives and kids, have been hounded," he said. "We've had a number of guys who ended up taking their own lives."

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