In one of Michigan's largest counties, the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders were posted on the Internet yesterday by a state representative who wants "trick-or-treaters" to know whose door they are knocking on this Halloween.
State representative Dave Jaye also wanted to make it easier for the estimated 750,000 Macomb County residents to identify alleged offenders in their areas. In April, the state's Sex Offenders Registry became public, but Jaye contends that it isn't very accessible.
"While dressing up like a ghoul may be fun, kids must realize that some houses are not safe to visit because a real monster lives there," Jaye, a Republican, said in a statement. "This registry is available at police departments statewide, but it is not always convenient for people to get to the police station during business hours."
Jaye's Web site will eventually list the names and addresses of more 275 people. He plans to introduce legislation soon that would require pictures of those listed as well.
But critics say he violated state law when creating the site and that the sex offender database he used is known to be riddled with errors.
"Any individual can go to local law enforcement agencies and look at a list. What makes Jaye's action particularly disturbing is that the Michigan statute prohibits people from revealing the names to another person," said Paul Denenfeld, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union in the Midwestern state. "We've already had several situations in which there was erroneous information put in the records, such as person being arrested but not charged."
The ACLU warned that Jaye could be guilty of a misdemeanor charge, with penalties of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. There is a chance he could be sued if those listed are harmed in some way due to the site, Denenfeld noted.
Disclosing the identity of sex convicts online, as well as the nature of their crimes, is a growing trend as states begin to enact "Megan's law," named after a New Jersey girl who was sexually assaulted and killed by a recidivist sex offender who was living across the street from her. The law requires that such criminals register with local police departments, allowing people to access a list of offenders in their area.
These lists increasingly are being made available in cyberspace, but not always by local authorities. In California, for example, a Los Angeles parent created sexoffenders.net, which includes the names of "high-risk" sex crime convicts in the huge metropolitan area. The names were originally published on a CD-ROM, but the site's publisher, Ken LaCorte, copied the information and uploaded it to the Net. He claims that more parents have access to the data online.
When "sexual predator" profiles were put on the Web in California and Florida, for example, civil liberties groups worried that convicts would be attacked by angry neighbors. "We want to avoid the potential for vigilantism or intrusion on people who have already done their time " Denenfeld added.
According to Jaye's staff, the legislator sought a legal opinion before launching the site and was given permission by the state police to post the names in cyberspace.
"We went to the local post commander for the state police and said, 'We'll provide the listing at cost to our county.' He supplied us with the documents," said Michael Frame, Jaye's legislative aide. "Our legal opinion states that duplication is permissible under the law."
Jaye's staff insists that it is more important to protect children than the identities of convicted sex criminals. "There is the argument from civil libertarians that they have done their time, but it has been proven that they go out and molest children again."
If Jaye's site remains online, the names, aliases, birth dates, addresses, date of registration, and convictions for Macomb County's sex criminals could be accessible by anyone in the world for at least 25 years, the length of time the registrations remain public.
It may not stop in one Michigan county. "We want to put the 'pervert' registry up [on the Internet] for other counties, too," Frame said.