By John Dillon
Two convicted sex offenders have gone to court to block the state from posting their names on the Internet.
The public posting is required under a new law that expands Vermont's sex offender registry.
But the lawsuit says the new registration requirements violate the offenders' rights. It says by making their names public, the state will punish the offenders again for a crime for which they've already done time.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) The Legislature expanded the sex offender registry following the rape and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett last year.
Starting October 1st, the public Internet registry of sex offenders will include people who have been convicted of sex crimes in other states. This and other changes will add about 1,200 new listings to the public registry.
The lawsuit was filed in Washington Superior Court. David Sleigh (Contact) is a St. Johnsbury lawyer who filed the case on behalf of two Caledonia County men.
(Sleigh) "They have not been found to be predators; they don't present a general risk to anyone. And it seems to us unfortunate and wrong to all of a sudden put them, pictures, address, everything else, on the Internet and expose them to the opprobrium, and humiliation and perhaps vengeance that might attend that posting."
(Dillon) Sleigh said his clients were convicted in the 1990s - one in Massachusetts and the other in New Hampshire. He said both served their sentences and have been released from probation.
(Sleigh) "This constitutes additional punishment applied after the fact. And that's unconstitutional. Secondly, we've argued that this is a material change in the bargain that these two clients made, both of them entered plea agreements for certain consideration. Now years later there's an additional component of punishment that's being added."
(Dillon) State officials said they had not seen the lawsuit yet and could not comment. But Bennington Senator Dick Sears (Email) (PDF), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers expected a legal challenge. Sears said his committee had heard that some offenders were choosing to live in Vermont because the state had more lenient registration requirements.
(Sears) "And we felt very strongly that we didn't want Vermont to be seen by those offenders as a safe haven for sex offenders. The secondary reason for the expansion, quite frankly, was that's what the public called for - 54,000 people signed petitions asking for stronger sex offender laws as well as expansion of the registry."
- So just because people sign a petition, doesn't make it right, or constitutional! The constitution FORBIDS ex post facto laws.
(Dillon) The lawsuit comes as a legislative committee this week is scheduled to review how the state is implementing the new registry law.
Sears said lawmakers carefully considered the constitutional arguments against the expanded registry.
(Sears) "They're not seen as punishment. Registry requirements are not seen as punishment. And I think that's the key issue. But there's always some concern when it's prospective, or after the person's already served their time."
- You live with the laws, then tell me it's not punishment!
(Dillon) But Attorney Sleigh said Supreme Courts in two states - Alaska and Indiana - have ruled that the retroactive registry requirements did constitute a form of additional punishment.
- Of course it is, and the US Constitution forbids ex post facto laws as well, so that in itself makes the law unconstitutional.
The lawsuit names his clients as John Doe and John Roe. Sleigh said he's asking the court to keep them anonymous because the whole point of the case is to shield their identities.
The court has agreed to that request.
"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of a civilization. We must have a desire to rehabilitate into the world of industry, all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment." - Winston Churchill (United States Constitution)
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