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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sex Offenders Fight Passport ‘Scarlet Letter’

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The International Megan's Law bill signed by President Barack Obama on Monday requiring sex offenders to be identified on their passports is already being challenged in court.

The civil rights group California Reform Sex Offender Laws filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, challenging the constitutionality of certain provisions of the International Megan's Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking.

The original Megan's Law was passed by the New Jersey Legislature in 1994 after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was assaulted and murdered by a sex offender living across the street. The legislation, which requires authorities to disclose where convicted child offenders live, has since been adopted by every other state.

The International Megan's Law, which Congress passed unanimously on Feb. 1 and Obama signed on Monday, is designed to alert foreign governments when registered sex offenders travel abroad and help prevent sex trafficking crimes.

Under the new law, passports issued to registered sex offenders will contain an identifying mark. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are to inform foreign governments when registered sex offenders are visiting their countries and are to receive information when sex offenders come to the United States from abroad.

Janice Bellucci, president of the California Reform Sex Offender Laws, says the required mark on sex offenders' passports is akin to "a scarlet letter."

"Today the Scarlet Letter will be used to punish sex offenders. Tomorrow the same or a similar letter could be used to punish Muslims, gays or drunk drivers," she said.

Bellucci, who is representing four anonymous sex offenders in their lawsuit against the government, said Congress did not provide adequate attention to the legislation and passed it by voice vote and without substantial discussion or debate.

"The process used for the vote - suspension of the rules - was an abuse of a Congressional rule that is supposed to be limited to noncontroversial bills, not historically significant bills like International Megan's Law," Bellucci said.

The sex offenders argue in their complaint that the legislation applies in blanket fashion to all registered sex offenders, regardless of the circumstances or age of their conviction or whether they pose a current risk to public safety.

"For example, covered individuals whose passports will now publicly identify them as 'sex offenders' will include individuals convicted of minor misdemeanor offenses such as 'sexting' or public urination, individuals convicted of voluntary sexual contact with a girlfriend or boyfriend while both were teenagers, individuals convicted decades ago and who have never reoffended, and even individuals who are currently minors or who committed their offense while a minor," the complaint says.

The list of individuals who will have to have the identifying mark on their passports will also include those who are no longer required to register as a sex offender in any jurisdiction, according to the complaint.

This will "harm thousands of Americans who have been declared by a state to be rehabilitated and are no longer required to register as sex offenders. The federal government in such cases will substitute its own judgment, which will not be based upon an investigation of an individual, for the judgment of a state government that has conducted such an investigation," Bellucci said.

Being forced to identify themselves as sex offenders "will invite serious risk of physical harm and harassment" on the offenders, their families and anyone with whom they are traveling, the complaint says.

The law also violates the First Amendment by compelling people "to identify themselves publicly as 'sex offenders' on their United States passport, which serves both as a primary form of identification within the United States as well as an essential international travel document," the complaint says.

Lawmakers, however, say that the legislation is an important step in expanding the protection of children globally.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said that the "reinforcing provisions of this carefully crafted legislation" will prevent "convicted U.S. sex offenders from harming children abroad" and will "help stop those seeking to end run the registry and notification programs."

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee which funds the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, said that the law will give the departments the tools they need to protect children at home and abroad.

"We have made some amazing progress over the years, starting out with billboards and milk cartons. But as crimes have grown more sophisticated, we've had to become more sophisticated," she said.

Bellucci sees it differently.

"Only Nazi Germany and Communist Russia have marked the passports of their citizens in this way and that was done decades ago," she said, warning that "citizens of this nation should be afraid, very afraid."

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