TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — A lawyer for New Jersey arguing Monday before the state Supreme Court called it vital to public safety that certain sex offenders register as such for life.
“Society has the right to know of their presence, not in order to punish them, but to protect itself,” Deputy Attorney General Emily Anderson said, defending a provision of a 1994 law named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township who was raped and murdered by a neighbor already twice convicted of sexual assault.
The New Jersey law soon became a model for a federal version of Megan’s Law, allowing for law enforcement and the public to find information about the whereabouts of sex offenders,
In 2002, the state added a subsection to Megan’s law that requires convicted sex offenders to stay registered as a sex offender for life if they committed more than one sex offense, pursing sexual assault or an aggravated sexual assault. Up until then, convicted sex offenders had the opportunity to request they be removed from the list so long as they went 15 years without committing another offense.
Oral arguments Monday morning focused on two sex offenders, referred to only by their initials G.A. and G.H, who were convicted prior to 2002 seeking to have themselves taken off of the list.
Last August, a federal judge ruled that the subsection was not intended to be retroactively applied, allowing G.A. and G.H. to apply to terminate their registration under Megan’s Law.
Justice Walter Timpone noted that G.A. and G.H. entered guilty pleas under the impression they may one day be removed.
“They entered guilty pleas based on the knowledge that after 15 years they had the possibility of appearing before a judge and getting taken off any registration obligations,” Timpone said.
Anderson argued, however, that such intentions do not matter.
“Termination from Megan’s Law was never guaranteed to any offender,” she said.
Though convicted in 1996 and 2001, G.A. and G.H. were forced to stay registered for life under the subsection.
Anderson pressed that the subsection needs to be retroactively applied so the public can continue to know where these sex offenders are located, no matter how much time has passed.
Justice Barry Albin questioned the ethics behind forcing a person who does not commit another offense in 15 years to remain registered.
“Here we have potentially people who after 15 years will pose no danger to the public, will be fully rehabilitated and yet will be subjected to this registration scheme,” Albin said.
Assistant Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Lutz, representing the offenders, argued that it is fundamentally unfair to retroactively impose this subsection on her clients.
Justice Anne Patterson questioned the difference between imposing Megan’s Law onto those who committed sex offenses prior to the enactment of the law.
“If it was not unfair to impose Megan’s Law on individuals who were convicted before Megan’s Law ever existed anywhere, then why is it fundamentally unfair in this situation,” Patterson asked.
Lutz pushed back, reminding the court that the original enactment of Megan’s Law included other subsections that would not allow for lifetime registration, emphasizing that her clients pled guilty thinking they may one day be off the list.
“If registrants of criminal defendants can’t rely on the offense of counsel or the assurances of the court, then the integrity of the criminal justice system will be diminished in New Jersey,” said Lutz.
The panel was rounded out by Chief Justice Stuart Raber, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Justice Lee Solomon.