Colorado’s attorney general is appealing a federal judge’s ruling that the state’s sex offender registry is unconstitutional because it further stigmatizes convicts who have completed their sentences.
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch said that because information is readily accessible via the internet, Colorado’s lifetime registration for sex offenders violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment.
“The record in this case reflects that maintaining the sex offender registry, requiring Internet publication of information on the registry, and permitting republication of the information by private websites have effects that are analogous to the historical punishment of shaming,” Judge Matsch wrote last month, holding that three convicted sex offenders should not have to submit to the registry.
His ruling follows last year’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit that said Michigan couldn’t retroactively apply its sex offender-registration law to people who were convicted before the state created its registry requirement.
The appeals court said that this amounted to an ex post facto punishment, which also is banned under the Constitution.
Michigan has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, while Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said she has filed a notice of appeal against the judge’s ruling.
“Survivors of sexual assault are forever impacted by the trauma they have experienced, and we must never lose sight of the responsibility we have to prevent the victimization of more innocent people,” Ms. Coffman said.
Sex offender registries date back decades but gained popularity in the 1990s amid a national tough-on-crime movement. Today, every state and the District of Columbia have enacted registration laws, as have U.S. territories and American Indian reservations.
The federal government even has made some of its grant money contingent on states maintaining registry databases, with standards for how the information should be collected and used.
The law aimed to bring uniformity and set minimum standards for who must register, requirements for officials to keep registries current and conduct in-person check-ins, and public disclosure of the information.
The Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that registries are valid, finding the intrusion against convicts is justified because it protects the public.
Derek Logue, a former offender living in Ohio who runs the website OnceFallen.com, said much has changed since then, including the new federal standards. Before, he said, offenders only had to fill out a form in order to register.
“Now, you have to do it in person, the frequency has increased, there’s restrictions that didn’t exist back then, so we have to do a lot more now,” said Mr. Logue. “It makes a huge difference.”
The Colorado and Michigan decisions suggest some courts agree that the balance has tipped too far.
“You’re seeing a shift, particularly in state courts. They are looking at the new laws with a more critical eye,” said Wayne Logan, a law professor at Florida State University.
Judge Matsch in Colorado ruled on a challenge brought by three offenders who said they had trouble finding jobs and housing because of the registry, and said that amounted to further punishment beyond the time they served in prison.
Registry critics also say the in-person reporting requirement interferes with work schedules and community relationships.
Laurie Rose Kepros, director of sexual litigation for Colorado’s public defender’s office, said that while Judge Matsch’s decision only immediately affects the three plaintiffs, the consequences could reach much further.
Local news reports said the sheriff in one Colorado county already has taken its registry offline.