By A.J. Higgins
A legislative committee has issued a split decision on a bill requiring state residents convicted of sex offenses in foreign countries to register as a sex offenders here in Maine. Supporters say the bill is needed because current law provides a loophole for Maine sex offenders whose crimes are committed outside the country. But critics argue there are serious due process issues at stake because the standards for a conviction in a foreign country may not be the same as in the United States. A.J. Higgins has more.
The need for the bill seemed obvious to state Rep. Joyce Maker, a Republican from Calais, a stone's throw from the Canadian border. She says the issue came to her attention during a conversation with someone from Homeland Security, who told her an American convicted of child sexual assault in Canada had been deported back Maine.
But Maker says state law enforcement agencies were not authorized to add his name to the sex offender registry because his conviction occurred outside the U.S.
"It's going to be my focus, I guess here in the Legislature, to try to protect those children that are being sexually abused," she told colleagues, "and this is just one other avenue that they're getting to."
Maker's solution would be to require Maine residents convicted of sex offenses in foreign countries to comply with the provisions of the state Sex Offender Registry Notification Act. The bill received the support of the Calais Police Department last year, but the legislation was carried over to this year's session.
Mark Dion, house chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says a 9 to 4 vote by the panel against the legislation reflects lawmakers' concerns over the due process rights of the individual.
"I think the arguments around due process are significant enough that this could get tied up in courts, when what the police chief wants to do tomorrow is make sure his community has been put on notice," Dion said.
The due process issues are very real for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine that has gone on record against Maker's bill. The ACLU says that, unlike others convicted in Maine and required to register as sex offenders, those with convictions in other countries have not gone through the American criminal justice system and not afforded the same constitutional protections.
As pointed out by the ACLU's Oami Amarasingham, not only would there be concerns that a foreign court would not include adequate criminal defense provisions, in some countries, there might not even be a trial. Those real concerns created a lot of doubt for Dion and other members of the panel, prompting the Portland Democrat to try to find an alternative remedy.
"So rather than see this fall down some sort of legal wormhole, we worked with the chiefs and said, look, they can develop notification policies, they can advise us as to what criteria they would use from the other police agencies in determining whether or not to make a notification," Dion says. "So I think we protect the public safety, we get the word out where it's appropriate. But we don't get hung up being in court trying to determine if it's fair to put somebody on a registry in this state."
Rep. Corey Wilson, an Augusta Republican, says Dion's compromise could provide the kind of protections law enforcement agencies want. But Wilson also worries that without a strong enough message, police agencies might simply choose to avoid community notifications all together.
"I'm afraid that there are going to be police chiefs or county sheriffs that are going to be reluctant to take on this for fear of litigation purposes, where we're dealing with foreign jurisdictions and sort of uncharted territory, where we're not dealing with convictions within this country," Wilson said.
Dion says a minority report on the bill is expected, setting the stage for further debate when the measure reaches the House floor.