AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers reopened the books on Maine’s controversial sex offender law on Wednesday in the wake of a recent court ruling questioning the constitutionality of aspects of the registry.
Late last month, Maine’s highest court gave the Legislature slightly more than three months to revise a 1999 state law requiring certain sex offenders to essentially re-register with police every 90 days for the rest of their lives. The court said applying that lifetime requirement retroactively without the possibility of a waiver was unconstitutional.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Janet T. Mills told a legislative committee that the Supreme Judicial Court upheld Maine’s right to maintain and publish — including on the Internet — a list of convicted sex offenders in the interest of public safety. Additionally, the law can remain in place for people convicted after the 1999 law took effect.
But Mills said the court’s ruling means the Legislature will have to take steps to address sex offenders convicted between 1982 and 1999.
“You need to do something,” Mills warned the lawmakers.
Those words appeared to resonate with members of the Criminal Justice Committee, some of whom have been involved in writing and re-writing Maine’s sex offender registry law for a decade or more.
“One of the options we don’t have is to do nothing,” said Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison. “I think we have an obligation to respond.”
Under current law, anyone convicted of a sex offense or sexually violent offense since Jan. 1, 1982, is required to register with the state. But the law has gone through various iterations in response to public outcry, national requirements and legal challenges.
The case brought before the Supreme Judicial Court involved Eric Letalien, a Dixfield man who was 19 when he was convicted of rape in 1996 for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. At the time, he was required to register as a sex offender for 15 years, but was also allowed to seek a waiver from the registry after five years.
Under the changes enacted in 1999, he was required to register as a sex offender every 90 days for the rest of his life. The updated law also took away his right to ask for a waiver.
Mills presented the committee with several options. Committee members also expressed an interest in simultaneously reviewing a bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Anne Haskell, of Portland, that would rewrite various aspects of the law.
The first option presented by Mills was to repeal the lifetime registration requirement and the mandatory check-in with police every 90 days for anyone convicted before the 1999 law.
A more complicated but constitutionally sound option would be to create what Mills called a “rolling registry” where offenders would only have to follow the laws that were on the books at the time of their conviction.
“It would be difficult to administer but it would be the most legally defensible option,” Mills said. One question that lawmakers would have to address, however, is how to treat people convicted between 1982 and 1992, the year the first sex offender registry law was passed.
The state could also keep lifetime registration but allow convicted offenders the opportunity to seek a waiver from that requirement if they met certain requirements, such as no subsequent offenses.
The retroactive application of registration requirements has long been one of the most hotly debated aspects of an already controversial law. Critics argue that requiring registration for people convicted before the law took effect constitutes additional punishment on many people who served their time and have had no subsequent violations.
Debate over the law re-ignited in 2006 when a Canadian man entered Maine and killed two strangers he had tracked down through addresses listed on the state’s online registry. One of the men, a 57-year-old Milo resident, had been convicted in Massachusetts the year before Maine’s registry law went into effect.
Last year, the law was changed to allow people convicted between 1982 and June 30, 1992, to petition to be removed from the registry altogether. In order to be eligible, the individuals must not have had any subsequent felony-level offenses.
Matt Ruel, director of the State Bureau of Identification, which maintains the registry, said Wednesday that 175 people have successfully petitioned to have their names removed since the law took effect on Sept. 1. About 200 requests have been denied, he said.
There are roughly 3,200 registrants in the system, Ruel said.
But as committee members acknowledged Wednesday, any additional revisions will have to navigate a maze of legal, legislative and political obstacles, not the least of which could be a veto by Gov. John Baldacci.
Baldacci spokesman David Farmer indicated that the administration plans to play a major role in determining the best way to meet the court’s requirements without gutting the law.
“He wants to protect the registry,” Farmer said Wednesday. “He thinks it is an important public safety tool.”
Zachary Heiden, legal director with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said he believes simply eliminating the retroactivity of the law is the best and simplest option. While waivers may make sense from a policy standpoint, waivers may not meet the constitutional test, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.