By Sarah Newell Williamson
UPDATE: Social networking ban for NC sex offenders remains in effect
GREENSBORO - Some area law enforcement agencies are speaking out against Tuesday’s North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling (PDF) that a law prohibiting registered sex offenders from using social networking sites is too broad and illegal.
“They need to rewrite the law if the concern is it’s too broad,” said Randy Jones, spokesman with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office. “We need to have protection for our kids. These people are online, in social chat rooms.”
According to the 2008 law, it’s a felony for a sex offender to use a website that allows minors to become members or create or maintain pages on the website.
A convicted sex offender contested his case, arguing that the law violated his free speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press under the First and 14th amendments. It is the first constitutional challenge to the law heard before the court, according to the ruling.
The defendant argued that the statute is too broad, treating all sex offenders the same, regardless of the severity of the crime they committed, whether a computer was used and without regard of how likely they were to commit a crime again.
Under the statute, convicted offenders could not use Amazon, Google or even the Food Network’s website because the sites allow social profiles, message boards, photo sharing and derive revenue from ads.
“It fails to target those offenders who pose a factually-based risk to children through the use or threatened use of banned sites or services,” the ruling reads. “It burdens more people than necessary to achieve its purported goal.”
The three-judge Court of Appeals panel ruled unanimously. The Court of Appeals is the state’s intermediate appeals venue. Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office represented the state in the case, said lawyers will ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case. Since it was a unanimous ruling, justices aren't obligated to take up the appeal.
Guilford County Sheriff’s Col. Randy Powers said the ruling won’t have a big impact in Guilford County, because it deals with many first-time offenders, rather than those who have been convicted.
The sheriff’s office is still concerned about the Court of Appeals’ ruling, though.
“The question will be, does the (state) Supreme Court take the case or not?” Powers asked.
If the Court of Appeals ruling stands, Powers said he and Guilford Sheriff BJ Barnes have talked about trying to speak to a local legislator about amending the current law or writing a new one that would better address the issue, so convicted sex offenders would not have access to chat rooms and social networking websites where they can prey on children.
As for any future online activity convicted sex offenders may be involved in, Powers said that will be addressed as it arises.
“Hopefully, there will be another statute amending this one, or a new one will be passed,” he said. “This will not stop us from making arrests for people soliciting (children) online.”
- It shouldn't. Let people use the service, they have a right to, but if they commit a crime, then arrest them. Duh!!
“It needs to go on to the Supreme Court,” said Randy Jones, spokesman with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office. “Sex offenders are using social networking for predatory actions.”
- Some are, but not all, and the law targets all ex-sex offenders.
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office Crimes Against Children Task Force monitors sex offenders online, Jones said, to see if they are involved in illegal activity. He said the task force is not watching the offenders’ spending habits.
“You wouldn’t find us going after the people who look at the Food Network’s website,” Jones said. “I haven’t seen anyone charged (for social media use) unless we’re already investigating them.”
Many people charged with sex crimes are repeat offenders, Jones said, which is why he’s concerned about the ruling. They also sometimes target several people at once.
- That is simply not true, based on the facts and not ones own personal opinion.
A few years ago, Jones recalls one suspect in his 40s who was posing as a 16-year-old online, targeting 51 people at once.
The Burlington Police Department will continue to investigate convicted sex offenders’ online activities as best it can under the Court of Appeals’ decision, said Assistant Chief Chris Verdeck.
- Sex offender social media change worries parents
- Court strikes down law banning sex offenders from social media