Lawsuit to challenge constitutionality of 'Megan's Law'

Friday, July 11, 2003

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A group of registered sex offenders in Missouri filed a state lawsuit Thursday challenging the constitutionality of a Missouri law that requires sex offenders to register with authorities in their home county.

Attorney Arthur A. Benson II filed the lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court on behalf of six men and two women who remained anonymous. The lawsuit claims Missouri's Sex Offender Registration Act is unconstitutional on six grounds.

The suit claims Missouri's law restricts personal freedom without a due process hearing, is applied to past offenders, adds punishment without a jury trial, treats different groups of offenders similarly, requires registration after other punishment ends and creates a special class of people without a compelling state interest.

Benson said the law has caused his clients "all kinds of horrible consequences" -- from ridicule to lost jobs.

Every state has a version of the sex-offender registration law, known commonly as "Megan's Law" after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a convicted sex offender who had moved in across the street.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said he did not expect the lawsuit to succeed, considering the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in March to uphold similar laws in Connecticut and Alaska.

Nixon said the registration lists provide valuable information to protect the public. Nixon said the lists help prevent convicted offenders from moving from an area where they are known to an area where residents will not know them as sex offenders.

"Erring on the side of public safety is the safe sideline to fall on," Nixon said.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Connecticut could list all sex criminals on a state Web site without holding hearings to decide whether they remained dangerous to the public. It also upheld Alaska's list, which posts pictures of sex offenders and lists their home and work addresses and the type of car they drive.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, Kansas City's federal court dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by Benson requesting Missouri's list not be published.

Ted Hunt, who helped write Missouri's "Megan's Law" in 1994, said Missouri's law is consistent with the laws that have been upheld. Hunt said the Missouri Supreme Court would have to decide that the Missouri Constitution granted greater rights to sex offenders than granted by the U.S. Constitution in order for the lawsuit to succeed.

Hunt said it is possible, but not likely, the Missouri court's ruling would differ from the U.S. Supreme Court's.

"I think the chances of success for this lawsuit are very slim because we have a court that traditionally sticks to precedent," said Hunt, who is Jackson County's chief trial assistant for sex crimes and domestic violence.

He added, "They would really have to find a way to distinguish this and make a new argument."

Benson said the lawsuit could be aided because Missouri prohibits any statute from being applied to past offenses. Federal ex post facto laws only prevent punishment from being applied after the fact.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forcing sex offenders to register is not a punishment because it is intended to aid the public, not to punish the criminal.

Nixon said the lists simply make public information more widely available to the public.

Hunt said the registries are necessary because statistics indicate sex offenders are more likely to repeat their crimes than other offenders. Hunt said the lists can also be useful to police investigating sex crimes.

"It gives law enforcement a head start if there is a crime in a specific area," Hunt said.

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