In a 9-0 decision, the justices overturned an appeals court's earlier ruling that said Connecticut's version of "Megan's Law" violated the due process rights of people forced to register under it. The law is named after Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was killed by a sex offender.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote Wednesday's opinion, stressed that a Connecticut Web site did not claim that the sex offenders featured on it currently posed a threat to the community. That site displayed only "the fact of previous conviction, not the fact of current dangerousness," Rehnquist wrote. "Indeed, the public registry explicitly states that officials have not determined that any registrant is currently dangerous."
This case, and a second also decided Wednesday involving an Alaska state law, highlight the criminal justice system's attempt to grapple with access to court information in the digital age--and reconcile it with traditional values of privacy and free speech. Privacy advocates fear that the increasedof records on the Internet not only will embarrass people but also could lead to an increase in identity theft and vigilantism.
Connecticut's version of Megan's Law requires that people convicted of sex-related crimes--or found not guilty by reason of insanity--register with the state for the next 10 years, and that the state must post that information on the Internet. Anyone who moves to a new address and is subject to the law must register within five days.
Rehnquist's opinion said the court took no position on whether Connecticut's law might be vulnerable to an attack brought on other due process grounds. Also, a convicted sex offender has no right to a hearing to prove that he or she is no longer likely to commit crimes, Rehnquist said.
In October 2001, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Connecticut's law "fails to accommodate the constitutional rights of persons formerly convicted of a wide range of sexual offenses who are branded as likely to be currently dangerous offenders irrespective of whether or not they are."
The state's "Sex Offender Registry" Internet database was available at the Connecticut state site until the courts shut it down. It was searchable by ZIP code or city name.
During oral arguments in November, Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal said that the state is simply providing accurate information to the public. "And each of the convicted sex offenders on this registry has received a hearing, a full and fair hearing, many of them a trial, all of them the full panoply of due process rights and have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Blumenthal said.
Shelley Sadin, an attorney representing a "John Doe" challenging the registration requirement, called it a "government-imposed stigma" that is done under threat of jail time if people do not comply.
In the Alaska case, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that sex offender databases may include names of people who were convicted of crimes before the registration requirement was enacted. "The act is nonpunitive, and its retroactive application does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause" of the U.S. Constitution," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.