Federal judge calls Alabama sex offender registration scheme debilitating

By JACOB SULLUM . . . “Sex offenders are not second-class citizens,” writes U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins in a recent decision overturning two provisions of the Alabama Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Act (ASORCNA) on First Amendment grounds. “The Constitution protects their liberty and dignity just as it protects everyone else’s.”

Those points, which should be obvious, are a sadly necessary corrective to the hysteria that has driven legislators in one state after another to enact indiscriminate, mindlessly restrictive, and covertly punitive laws aimed at sex offenders. ASORCNA, which Watkins calls “the most comprehensive and debilitating sex-offender scheme in the nation,” is a prime example.

The lead plaintiff in this case, dubbed John Doe 1, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure in the early 1990s, when he was living in Wisconsin. He received a six-month suspended sentence for each charge and was not required to register as a sex offender, even after moving to Alabama in 1994. But 14 years later, Alabama expanded its registry, forcing Doe to comply with ASORCNA’s numerous demands and restrictions under threat of imprisonment. Among other things, that meant his driver’s license was marked with the phrase “CRIMINAL SEX OFFENDER” in bold red letters. Here is how Doe describes the consequences of that notation:

I have never felt so embarrassed and ashamed in all of my life. I would not wish showing this on my worst enemy. It makes me not want to go places where I have to show it, and I try not to go places where I know I will have to. But every week, there is some places that ask me to show it, and every time, I get them evil looks from people—like I’m a murderer or something. I done paid for what I did over 25 years ago. Nobody should have to carry this. It ain’t right, but I don’t have a way out.

On Monday, Judge Watkins ruled that Alabama’s branding of registered sex offenders’ identification cards is a form of compelled speech prohibited by the First Amendment. “The branded-ID requirement compels speech,” he writes, “and it is not the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling state interest.” The state conceded that its ostensible purpose of alerting police officers to a sex offender’s status could be served by a much less conspicuous mark, such as a letter, that the general public would not readily recognize as a badge of shame. “Using one letter would keep officers informed while reducing the unnecessary disclosure of information to others,” Watkins notes.

Another aspect of Alabama’s “debilitating sex-offender scheme” is a requirement that people in the registry report “email addresses or instant message addresses or identifiers used, including any designations or monikers used for self-identification in Internet communications or postings other than those used exclusively in connection with a lawful commercial transaction.” Registrants also have to keep the authorities apprised of “any and all Internet service providers” they use. The information, which includes mundane activities such as logging into a Wi-Fi network outside the home or registering with a website to comment on news articles, must be reported within three business days, and local law enforcement agencies have the discretion to demand that it be done in person.

That requirement also violates the First Amendment, Watkins concluded. “An offender must report to the police every time he connects to a Wi-Fi spot at a new McDonald’s, every time he uses a new computer terminal at a public library, every time he borrows a smartphone to read the news online, and every time he anonymously comments on a news article,” he writes. “Every time he walks into a new coffee shop, he must determine whether opening his laptop is worth the hassle of reporting.” Those burdens “chill a wide swath of protected speech under penalty of felony,” Watkins says, making the law “facially overbroad.”

Watkins notes that the demand for information about online activity applied to Doe and the other four plaintiffs even though their offenses had nothing to do with the internet or children. And like other ASORCNA provisions, such as its restrictions on residency and employment, the rule applies for life, even though the risk of recidivism for most offenders declines over time to the point that registrants pose no greater threat than the average person. “The failure to account for risk is a problem throughout ASORCNA,” Watkins observes. “Not all sex crimes are the same. Nor are all offenders the same.”

That’s a striking statement from a judge who was appointed by George W. Bush just two years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Alaska’s sex offender registry based partly on fictitious recidivism numbers that continue to influence state and federal courts. It’s a message that judges and legislators throughout the country need to hear.

Source: Reason.com

4 thoughts on “Federal judge calls Alabama sex offender registration scheme debilitating

  • Avatar
    March 24, 2019 at 2:06 am
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    My crime happened in 1985 in a different state, I did my time and went through a treatment program. Once released in 1992, I was under no registry requirements. After being in Alabama for over 26 years and this state finding out, I was put under this dreadful law. I was devastated. I have no convictions in this state, none. I can only trust God to put the right officials in place to change this vengeful law. After serving my time, I got married and raised two of the most wonderful children. Now I am basically given a life sentence and have to re-register every 3 months to the sheriff’s office to a sex offender investigator, which basically equals a probation officer and pay $10.00 to re-register. I have lived as a free, tax paying citizen for over 26 years.

    God is the only one who can make changes because it is wrong. At least a sane judge saw the insanity of this law and made some changes. I thank God for this.

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  • Avatar
    February 21, 2019 at 12:29 pm
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    Robin,
    BTW, John Doe1 in the Alabama case is an acquaintance of mine from the 90s. He was part of Dr. Bob’s group in Janesville. He left this state because of SOR.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    February 21, 2019 at 12:22 pm
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    Robin V.

    Yes the judge said it but that does not change reality, nor law. Second class argument has been rejected before, but we’ll see what 11rules but in the meantime the treatment will continue.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    February 13, 2019 at 10:48 pm
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    Hello. After reading this it makes me sick. I have never thought that any state would have such over burdensome restrictions on Sex Offenders whether or not it had anything to do with children. It seems to me that law makers and citizens who wanna push more and more unnecessary laws on Sex Offenders have no respect for the US Constitution and other laws that protect everyone with RIGHTS and fair laws. I do not know how any of these people can sleep at night doing this bs crap to Sex Offenders who have done their time and met basic requirements to have to follow unnecessary laws and requirements that would make their life very miserable. If I am not mistaken the US Supreme Court overturned North Carolina’s ban on Sex Offenders using the internet period. Said it violated the First Amendment. So this should apply to ALL States. Its a shame that any Law Maker would ever want this nonsense imposed on anyone they should know…like family, friends, and others. Punishment should never be lifetime nor extend outside jail/prison for an excess amount of time. How are Sex Offenders ever to have a normal life and get a job and place to live with all these restrictions and etc. Having that label Sex Offender on ones drivers license crosses the line. US Supreme Court needs to get rid of ALL Sex Offender Laws such as: Registry, Satellite Based Monitoring, and other restrictions. Its hard enough for them to get employment when a criminal background check is done. Our society is going to hell quickly.

    Reply

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