TRENTON, NJ (CN) — New Jersey gives sex offenders their privacy back if they’ve kept a clean record for 15 years, but the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that one infraction keeps deregistration off the table permanently.
The decision was levied in response to a suit by H.D. and J.M., who had to register as sex offenders after pleading guilty in 1994 and 1998, respectively, to qualifying crimes.
Though the state made it possible in 2002 for offenders to have their names removed from the registry after a 15-year period of no infractions, no such relief was available to H.D. and J.M. who both offended again 2001.
H.D., convicted for failing to register as a sex offender, and J.M., convicted for computer-related theft, want another shot. They say the clock should reset every 15 years, meaning they would have been eligible to get off the sex-offender registry if they kept their noses clean through 2016.
Though an appeals court ruled in their favor, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed on Tuesday, concluding that deregistration is a one-time offer.
“Under the plain language of subsection (f), the fifteen-year period during which an eligible registrant must remain offense-free to qualify for registration relief commences upon his or her conviction or release from confinement for the sex offense that gave rise to his or her registration requirement,” Justice Lee Solomon wrote for the unanimous court.
Solomon found the language of the statute unambiguous, noting that a small change would have given the offenders better footing to sue.
“If the statute read ‘within 15 years following any conviction or release,’ the registrants might have a stronger argument,” the 16-page opinion states.
Solomon emphasized that the court focused only on the statutory possibility of resetting the clock, not the constitutionality of keeping sex offenders on a registry long after their last convictions.
Deputy Public Defender Fletcher Duddy, who represents the offenders, expressed disappointment with the ruling.
“The decision is at odds with the explicit purpose of Megan’s Law, which is to protect the public against those who do pose a risk,” said Duddy in an email Wednesday.
Duddy added that the ruling will require sex offenders who pose no threat to the public to stay on the registry for life. He further stressed the impact this will have on juvenile offenders.
“It is especially disappointing, and sad, to know that the decision also affects juvenile registrants,” said Duddy. “It means that if a juvenile commits a petty offense after being placed on Megan’s Law, he or she will automatically wear the Scarlet Letter of being a sex offender for the rest of their natural born lives, regardless of their rehabilitation or how little a risk they pose once they grow up.”
Representatives for the state did not immediately respond to email seeking comment.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner joined in the opinion as did Justices Jaynee LaVecchia, Barry Albin, Anne Patterson, Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Walter Timpone.