Although I practice personal injury law, last week I made a few observations about privacy issues and constitutional considerations regarding sexting. Recently, in passing, someone asked me a question about Megan’s Law. Although first enacted in Pennsylvania in 1995, portions of it were struck down after constitutional challenges and there have been several major revisions which now form the current law. Here is a very general outline along with just a few of the curious issues that remain to be decided.
Generally, the Pennsylvania Registration of Sexual Offenders Act, which we call Megan’s Law, requires convicted sexual offenders to register with the State Police if they live, work or attend school in Pennsylvania. The original versions of our statute treated some sexual offenders as predators based on the nature of their crimes, personal situations and mental health. Some of those provisions were unconstitutional because they were viewed as imposing new punishment on an offender who had already served his or her time.
Most of us probably despise sexual offenders more than any other type of criminal. Punishment for those crimes is decided by our criminal justice system, by our Courts and juries and of course, the sexual offender has certain rights within those systems. The purpose of Megan’s Law is not punitive. Rather, the law was written to protect the public by forcing sexual offenders to register with the State Police and making that information available so parents and communities can prepare themselves and their children. For those certain offenders who have been adjudged predators, the State Police will provide a notice containing the offender’s name, photograph, address, a statement of the offense for which the offender was convicted and a statement that he has been adjudicated a sexually violent predator. The notice goes to the new neighbors, the director of Children & Youth Service Agencies for that county, the superintendent of various public, private and parochial schools, licensees of certified daycare centers and preschool programs and local colleges. However, if the offender has not been adjudicated as a sexually violent predator, passive notification is required under the law. This means that neighbors and others are not directly given information from the State Police but rather, the information is posted on a State Police website. Thus, a sexual offender who has not been deemed to be a sexually violent predator based on his past conduct and personal situation, might live quite anonymously if people in the community do not frequently visit the website.
Because Megan’s Law is not supposed to add punishment to an already punished offender, issues have arisen as to what communities, condo associations, apartments and school districts can do when they learn that a registrant is in their community. It seems that the only restrictions that might pass a constitutional challenge would be those that limit certain sexual offenders from living within a certain distance of their victims or within a certain distance of a school or daycare center. Although the victim may want that distance to be measured in states, it is actually measured by a few thousand feet. Based only on a few cases that have discussed this issue, and some of these cases are from other states, it would appear that an apartment or condo association could not have an outright ban on any registrant moving into that community. The cases are fact specific, there are some open issues but the idea behind Megan’s Law seems to be notifying the community, not preventing a theoretically rehabilitated person from reentering the community.
School districts are also facing some very unique challenges. In a case from a mid-west state, a married father of three had long ago been convicted of rape. He was required to register by that state’s Megan’s Law. Apparently, that state permitted him to enter school property because he voted there and he could attend public meetings there, but he could not enter school property to watch his children in any extra-curricular school activities. He thought that was punishing him and his children for something that had occurred years ago, although other parents wanted him to remain far away from their children. In New Hampshire, a sex offender entered school grounds everyday to pick up his children from school. Other parents wanted to prevent him from entering the school grounds but the school did not want to prevent him from picking up his children or endanger them with regard to their trip home.
My initial reaction is to take all sex offenders and deposit them under a big rock in the middle of the ocean. However, we must remember that we are a society of laws and we should always be cognizant and thankful for that. It will take some time for the courts to decide these issues.
The State Police website is www.pameganslaw.state.pa.us and if what you find there causes you any concern, call your local police chief, discuss some steps you might take for your benefit and the benefit of your children and, as I say every week, be careful out there.
John A. Orlando, Esquire can be reached in his office at 115 Fayette Street, by phone at (610) 897-2576 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit our website at www.thepanjinjurylawyers.com.