By Judy Harrison
PORTLAND - Once again the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has been asked to help balance an individual’s rights with the public’s interest in protecting people, especially children, by requiring individuals convicted of sex crimes to be identified on the state’s online sex offender registry.
Justices will hear oral arguments Thursday afternoon for the second time in a case that was filed in 2006 in Kennebec County Superior Court.
The return of the case to the state’s high court is the latest skirmish over a complex legal issue that has been addressed by judges and lawmakers more than a dozen times over the past 20 years.
The primary challenge to Maine’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act is that it violates the rights of plaintiffs who were convicted before the law requiring them to register as sex offenders existed.
Maine’s sex offender registry has gone through a number of changes since it was created in 1992, according to The Associated Press. It attracted national attention when on April 16, 2006, a 20-year-old Canadian man killed two sex offenders in Maine before killing himself after randomly getting their names from the state’s online registry.
The current case stems from a court case filed less than two weeks later challenging the law. Over time, several dozen John Does joined the case, but a number of them later dropped out after the Legislature amended the law in 2009 to allow some sex offenders to be removed from the registry if they had completed their sentences, committed no additional crimes and met other standards.
Many of the remaining plaintiffs in the lawsuit, however, are not eligible to have their names removed from the registry, according to the AP.
“The central issue has always been the registrants’ desire to be removed from Maine’s sex offender registry,” attorney James Mitchell of Augusta wrote in his brief for the plaintiffs, all of whom are referred to in court documents as “John Doe.” “Every plaintiff along the way was a person who received notice to register years after his offense and punishment or who had registration requirements changed after his first registration. Retroactivity is at the heart of the case.”
Assistant Attorney General Paul Stern disagreed with that premise in his brief.
“From the outset of this litigation, [the plaintiffs’] goal has been to do away with the registry so that ‘the [sexual] offender[s] could sink back into anonymity,’” he wrote, citing one of the Mitchell’s motions filed in the case.
“The state does not claim that the registry is a complete or perfect solution to the larger issue of sex offender recidivism — indeed, it is but one component of a broad-spectrum approach that includes containing and supervising convicted offenders, supporting victims, and educating and informing the public,” Stern said.
Stern said the registry did not have to “be perfect to pass constitutional muster.”
The case does not challenge a law — passed earlier this year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage — that overhauled the sex offender registry.
LD 1514 created a tiered system for offenders. Under the new law, offenders will be separated into 10-year registrants, 25-year registrants and lifetime registrants based on the severity of their offenses. The new law also created a Sex Offender Risk Assessment Advisory Commission “for the purpose of conducting a continuing study of methods that may be used to predict the risk of recidivism by a sex offender and to develop a method that may be used for such purposes.”
It was unclear Wednesday how the justices will view the issues raised by the plaintiffs — which include an argument that a reoffender risk assessment is a better way to protect the public from pedophiles than is a list of people convicted of sex crimes — in light of the new law.