Federal Judge says Sex Offender Registries are Unconstitutional
Colorado’s attorney general has decided to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that the state’s sex offender registry violates the Constitution.
The controversial ruling comes from US District Court Judge Richard Matsch, who ruled on a challenge brought by three sex offenders who said they had trouble finding housing and jobs because of the registry. Matsch says the lifetime registry violates their due-process rights and thus amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
“The record in this case reflects that maintaining the sex offender registry, requiring Internet publication of information on the registry, and permitting republication of the information by private websites have effects that are analogous to the historical punishment of shaming,” writes Matsch.
Colorado’s lifetime sex offender registry includes names, addresses, and photos. Thanks to the Internet, this information is readily avilable to everyone.
Offenders can petition the court to be removed from the list after they complete an extensive and very costly probation process. Even after probation, they are required to register every single year, in person. Registration costs up to $125. It is a felony not to register.
Matsch agreed with the three plaintiffs when they insisted that these laws amount to further punishment beyond their original sentences.
One plaintiff said he had filled out more than 200 housing applications but had been denied every single time. Another pointed out that he had been placed on the list for an offense he committed at age 13. All three were locked up for sexually assaulting children.
Alison Ruttenberg, the attorney working on behalf of the three offenders, lauded Matsch’s decision because it acknowledged that treating every single person on the registry like a violent child predator was unfair.
“I don’t see any reason for a public registry,” says Ruttenberg, who has been involved with the case since 2013. “It causes vigilante crimes.” Ruttenberg notes that many of her clients have complained of harassment and damage to private property – just because someone found out they were on the registry.
“Sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rate of any class of felons. Sex offenders are not this dangerous class of people we need to pay special attention to. If you want to have a safe community, you need to find out where the drunk drivers are. They’re much more likely to pull out of their driveways and run over your kids as they’re walking to school.”
As Ruttenberg frequently points out, no other group of criminals is tracked in so public and so intense a manner.
In the meantime, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has vowed to appeal Matsch’s ruling. In the coming weeks, she will make an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which maintains the state’s sex offender registry.
“Colorado, its 49 sister states, and the federal government all have sex offender registry laws in place to inform the public and protect them from sexual offenders who have been found guilty of sexual crimes,” says Coffman. “Survivors of sexual assault are forever impacted by the trauma they have experienced, and we must never lose sight of the responsibility we have to prevent the victimization of more innocent people.”
Judge Matsch’s ruling will affect only three people, but could have national implications.
“I am guessing there’s going to be quite a bit more litigation on this,” says Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner. “I don’t think we’ve heard the last from the courts.”
Ruttenberg says she is excited to take the case to the 10th Circuit Court. If she wins at that level, the case will have far more legal weight.
Author’s Note: A sex registry is something that protects a community, but I can see why Matsch considers it unconstitutional. If someone commits a crime, when does the punishment end? Perhaps this should be part of the sentencing criteria and not an automatic lifetime registration.