OAKLAND, Calif (CN) — At a hearing Wednesday, registered sex offenders urged a federal judge not to dismiss a constitutional challenge to a new law that will mark their passports and notify foreign governments of their travels.
“We know there are countries who are denying entry based on those notifications. They do have a decreased quality of life, and are shocked and in fact dismayed when they can’t visit family overseas or conduct business overseas,” attorney Janice Bellucci said.
Bellucci represents the civil rights group California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a group that sued the federal government in February 2016, weeks after President Barack Obama signed the International Megan’s Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking.
Designed to alert foreign governments when registered sex offenders travel abroad and to help prevent sex-trafficking crimes, the new law requires that passports issued to registered sex offenders 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 and are to receive information when sex offenders come to the United States from abroad.
Bellucci told U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton that the government is casting too wide a net — based on fears about child-sex tourism — that will ensnare travelers who have no intention of engaging in such acts.
She noted that on a trip to visit his wife, one client was denied entry into the Philippines because of his sex-offender status. He ended up spending $11,000 by the time his ordeal had ended.
“Somebody spends a lot of time and money to travel to a foreign country only to be denied entry, and they have no idea that a notice has been sent,” Bellucci said.
Later, she said that certain nations where child-sex trafficking is prevalent are more likely to turn registered sex offenders away, based on the faulty assumption that visitors who happen to be registered sex offenders are there to prey on children.
In an interview outside the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Oakland, Bellucci said, “The government is saying that this person is going to engage in child-sex trafficking. That’s baloney. It’s like the movie ‘Minority Report.'”
Kathryn Wyer with the Justice Department argued that Hamilton should dismiss the action, saying the group hasn’t alleged any cognizable injury.
“There is no stigma associated with something that is already public information,” she said. “The plaintiffs do not have any right to have this information kept secret. They have been convicted under United States law, and they have no right to put a gag order on the United States from providing this information.”
Hamilton already issued a ruling in April refusing to halt enforcement of the law, finding the groups’ challenge was not yet ripe because a timeline for its implementation did not yet exist.
Wyer pointed to that ruling on Wednesday, saying the plaintiffs’ asserted injuries aren’t traceable to the International Megan’s Law.
“Simply sharing factual info with other governments is not a cognizable injury for the purposes of standing. The plaintiffs are essentially speculating on actions that other governments or third parties might take,” Wyer said. “But there’s nothing in the law that requires anything specific to happen. Any action that might be taken is an independent action by a foreign authority.”
She added that other laws prior to the International Megan’s Law also inform foreign governments of sex offenders’ travel plans, including National Guidelines for Sex Offender Registration and Notification, which allows U.S. Marshals to advise nations of sex offenders coming to their jurisdictions, and the Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Operation Angel Watch.
Bellucci said she’d just learned that International Megan’s Law will expand on those laws and would like the opportunity to amend the plaintiffs’ complaint to address the issue.
“We didn’t know what kind of authority they were claiming as their foundation,” Bellucci said. “Now that we know, we have some very significant questions about that.”
She said previous laws contain such protections as keeping the information confidential and the assurance that the information will only be used for the purposes provided. However, she said it was unclear whether the International Megan’s Law will include those protections.
Outside the building, dozens of protesters representing registered sex offenders had gathered, carrying signs emblazoned with zealous slogans condemning the law. Some protesters were with California Reform Sex Offender Laws. Others were with Women Against Registry, a nonprofit representing the mothers, wives and other family members of people convicted of sexual offenses.
Derek Logue said he’d traveled all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio, to protest the case. He said he was worried that the law’s notification and passport mark provisions would restrict his future travel.
“We already have a number of countries like Mexico and the Philippines that prohibit registered sex offenders from traveling.”
Pulling out an Alabama driver’s license stamped “criminal sex offender,” Logue explained that he used to live in Alabama, one of a handful of states that require such a mark.
“Imagine doing that with a passport,” he said. “It’s going to get much worse. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences.”
Logue slammed the government’s justification of clamping down on child-sex tourism.
“It’s a stupid notion,” he said. “There are lot of people who just want to see somewhere other than America. Get out and see the sights.”
David Kennedy, the owner of a company with a manufacturing plant in Taiwan, said he has already been restricted from traveling to check on his business.”I have employees and an economic interest, but I can’t go there anymore. My company has been hamstrung,” he said.
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