Court to shape sex offender registry debate

Posted Feb. 22, 2009, at 7:56 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Two similar state Supreme Court cases or a soon-to-be-debated piece of legislation likely will spur changes to Maine’s sex offender registration and notification act.

Earlier this month, oral arguments were heard by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in the cases of two men who are challenging the constitutionality of the registry. Eric Letalien and Anthony Laclair were convicted of minor sex offenses several years ago and sentenced accordingly for their crimes. Their names were added later to the state’s sex offender registry in a move their attorneys claim was an unfair punitive action.

Decisions in those cases are not expected for a couple of months, but they are likely to serve as a precedent for how the state moves forward on the issue.

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Meanwhile, members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee are expected soon to discuss LD 568, a bill that would make four distinct changes to Maine’s sex offender registry laws. Some of those changes go hand in hand with issues brought up by the court cases involving Letalien and Laclair.

The bill has been sent to committee, but a hearing date has not yet been scheduled.

It’s not clear whether the legislation or the court rulings will take effect first.

“Our inclination is to deal with this, but the court cases will surely affect what we decide,” said Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, LD 568’s sponsor. “And I’m sure some people will consider parts of this bill controversial.”

According to the summary of the LD 568, there are four areas that would change:

• Amending the crime of prohibited contact with a minor by repealing the element that the person has a duty to register under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 1999 and by making the law applicable to only those persons convicted on or after June 30, 1992.

• Clarifying a provision of the 1999 act that determines that a duty to register exists based on the conviction, but that the court’s duty is only to notify the person of that duty.

• Removes the provision that a person convicted of a sex offense satisfy all requirements of the 1999 act and allows the court’s discretion on conditions of probation.

• Redefines “lifetime registrant” for persons who have committed a second offense. For persons convicted and sentenced before Sept. 17, 2005, that means a conviction for an offense for which a sentence was imposed before the occurrence of the new offense. For those convicted and sentenced after Sept. 17, 2005, it doesn’t matter when the second offense occurred.

Sykes said the basic goals of his bill are to remove any punitive aspect of the registry and to help distinguish between violent offenders and those cases that involve an 18-year-old male having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Letalien and Laclair both would fall into the latter category, and Sykes said those offend-ers, particularly if they committed minor offenses from 1982 to 1992, likely would be removed.

“It’s not extra punishment,” he said of the registry’s role. “It’s meant to protect the public.”

Sykes’ bill is the result of numerous workshop sessions last summer by members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Before those sessions, Gov. John Baldacci vetoed LD 446, a bill similar to this session’s LD 568, in part because it would have removed nearly 600 offenders from the registry.

It’s too early to tell whether this year’s version is different enough to convince the governor to sign.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who last year chaired the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee but now heads up the Appropriations Committee, is one of a handful of co-sponsors for LD 568.

“This bill represents a lot of hard work and even some setbacks,” Diamond said. “But the real question is when it will be discussed. The courts know we’re kind of waiting on them.”

In addition to the Supreme Court cases involving Letalien and Laclair, as many as 30 “John Does” have filed a civil lawsuit arguing that their names should not be on the state’s registry. That suit has been consolidated in Kennebec County Superior Court but is still pending.

Another aspect of the sex offender registry that has been heavily debated in the last few years, including last summer, is a tiered system, which would create classifications based on the nature of offenses. One tier would exist for the most minor crimes, and those names would be on a “silent” registry accessible only by public safety officials. The second tier would allow anyone to request information about a specific offender, but their names would not be on the public registry. The final tier would include violent sexual predators and repeat offenders, and their names would be available to anyone.

LD 568 does not address a tiered system, but Sykes said it’s likely that the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee could discuss that option before the session ends.

One other bill this session that addresses sex offenders, LD 385, would prohibit cities and towns from adopting additional residency restrictions on offenders. Some municipalities, such as Westbrook, adopted such heavy restrictions that offenders could literally only live on a few streets within the city. Among the “John Does” who are suing the state, some refer to these types of additional restrictions.

That bill’s sponsor, Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, did not return a call for comment. Sykes, who is a co-sponsor, said the bill has been sent to his committee for review.

erussell@bangordailynews.net

990-8167

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