A Minnesota man who pleaded guilty to soliciting a prostitute last year is fighting to keep his name and picture off the Net, but it could be posted by police as soon as tomorrow.
This case highlights civil rights advocates' ongoing concerns about posting online the profiles of convicted sex criminals or even those who are arrested on misdemeanors. Opponents of this tactic say it leads to harassment or revenge. There also have been cases of misinformation or outdated data being published.
Since October 24, the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota has been publishing information online about citizens who were arrested for "engaging" in the sex trade within the past 18 months.
Worried his profile would soon be scattered across cyberspace, the 36-year-old man, who is a local basketball coach, hired a lawyer and filed for a temporary restraining order against the police department in order to keep his record suppressed.
According to his attorney, Paul Baertschi, the man was told by the judge in his prostitution case that his record would be sealed if he stayed out of trouble for a year. In fact, up until the man filed his case against the St. Paul Police, his court files on the prostitution arrest only identified him by his initials. Yesterday, a district judge in St. Paul denied the motion for the restraining order, Baertschi said, on grounds that his client couldn't show proof that he would be harmed by the Web site.
Plastering the Net with the identities of those accused of a range of sex crimes, from misdemeanors such as prostitution to felonies such as rape, is becoming more commonplace. More serious is the growing public fear that violent sexual predators will use the Net to lure victims.
Case in point: last Friday, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-New Jersey) introduced a bill that would prohibit Net service providers from giving accounts to "sexually violent predators." ISPs would be fined up to $5,000 for each violation.
Some civil rights advocates say the proposed law won't pass constitutional muster and would put unlawful liability on ISPs. Nonetheless, the trend is quite clear.
Baertschi says he has one last hope in keeping his client's face off the Net, but that won't help others who are wrongly charged, for example, or found innocent after a trial.
"The policy is only to put up those caught engaging in prostitution," Baertschi said today. "The police are going to call me tomorrow to say whether his charge meets the criteria."
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, when the prostitute arrest site launched, police soon realized that one of the men listed also had only been convicted of soliciting a prostitute. The photo was quickly removed, as it did not meet the department's criteria for posting. As a result, the Tribune reported, three officers who worked on the site were reassigned after the error was discovered.
In addition, when the site was created, the police had no plans to update it with the outcomes of the arrests. Now however, banners stating "convicted" are stamped across the faces of some who are posted on the site.
"You can have all sorts of people searching online and putting his name and address on some mailing list. He could receive all types of harassment just because he's been labeled a person that was 'engaging' in prostitution," Baertschi said.
Communities nowadays are demanding more access to public records on released convicted sex offenders. There is a surge of Web pages popping up featuring the names and home addresses of those deemed "sexual predators" who live in California and Michigan, for example.
Whether people get it from a local police station or a Web site, the information is being put to work. This Halloween in Oakland, California, maps detailing where alleged sex offenders lived were printed and given out to parents.
If Rep. Roukema's bill passes, there may be a new application for the online sex offenders lists: looking up criminals to block their access to the Net. Although it's doubtful that the legislation will pass in its current form, prisoners' groups weren't surprised to learn of its creation.
"It's akin to saying they can't walk outside because if they could walk outside they could see a kid or a woman and decide to stalk them," said Donald Stecter, director of the Prison Law Office in California.
"To enforce it, you'd have to go into somebody's house and look at their computer or get access to an ISP's list of customers. That would result in privacy concerns for all their other customers," Stecter added. "If that passes, it has a good chance of being declared unconstitutional."