A self-styled anti-crime crusader Thursday catapulted the debate over Megan's Law to new territory--the information superhighway, where he posted the names of dozens of Los Angeles County's most dangerous sex offenders that he culled from the Megan's Law CD-ROM.
Ken LaCorte said he has taken the law where Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and the state Legislature would not--online. His action allows anyone with a computer and modem to discover the identities and whereabouts of some of the state's almost 64,000 registered rapists and child molesters. Until Thursday, that information was available only on a CD-ROM in a handful of local police stations.
State authorities said they kept a lid on the data for good reason--they fear that sites like LaCorte's could be used by pedophiles to network, or could be altered by hackers to include names of innocent people.
LaCorte on Thursday said those fears are misguided. "When they keep that information under lock and key in police stations," he said, "thousands of these men will be getting closer to children."
His site lists the names and ZIP Codes of fewer than 100 of the roughly 300 high-risk sex offenders registered in Los Angeles County.
LaCorte says he hopes to expand his listing to cover all sex offenders in the state.
Listing pedophiles in cyberspace has unnerved some state officials and local police in California, but elsewhere it appears to be the next step in the push to publicize the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders. Authorities in Alaska, Florida and Indiana all maintain World Wide Web sites listing names, pictures and addresses of their state's registered offenders.
A bill in the California Legislature, which would place the entire database on the Internet, died in an Assembly committee earlier this summer. Its sponsor, Assemblyman Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), pledged in an interview Thursday to revive it during the next session.
Advocates say the Internet postings are in keeping with the spirit of Megan's Law, named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl slain by a paroled molester. Last year, Congress passed a statute to withhold some law enforcement funding from states that failed to pass versions of the law allowing police to alert neighborhoods to the presence of convicted sex offenders.
California's law went further than most, compiling a massive, publicly accessible CD-ROM database--which the state admitted is riddled with out-of-date and inaccurate information--listing all residents convicted of serious sexual offenses since 1944.
But it also placed restrictions on how that information could be accessed. It is available only at police stations in cities with more than 200,000 residents and at all local sheriff's stations. People wishing to view the CD must be over 18 years old and not have been convicted of a sex offense. They must fill out a form with their name, address and driver's license number. If a registered sex offender becomes the victim of vigilantism, investigators can use that record to learn who might have sought them out.
LaCorte's Web site requires no such record. A marketing manager for a medical supply company, LaCorte is an outspoken anti-crime activist who said he developed the site because he thought it was unfair and intimidating for parents to have to visit a police station and leave information about themselves in order to view the database.
Police and sheriff's officials report that visitor traffic has been spotty since the CD-ROM was made available July 1. But as word leaked out late Wednesday about LaCorte's posting, the site received 500 "hits"--even though the information wasn't yet available.
"More people tried to look at that site [that] night than I think went to look at the CD-ROM in the entire state of California," LaCorte said at a Thursday news conference.
Alaska's site also proved popular when it went online three months ago, with hundreds logging on to it in the first 24 hours, said Del Smith, the state's deputy public safety commissioner.
But critics warn that placing such volatile information as the identities of child molesters in an unregulated arena such as the Internet is dangerous.
"The possibility of either hacking or fraud or simply mis-keying the information makes this an extraordinarily dangerous way to play with people's lives," said Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She said hackers could break into the site and place names of innocent people among those of convicted sex offenders.
That is one reason state authorities tried to limit access, said Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for Lungren. Another is that police say child molesters like to network with one another and could easily use the CD-ROM data to share information.
"The law was written to allow law enforcement facilities to be the venue where it can be viewed. That was so we can control who views it . . . and control how it's viewed," said Lungren spokesman Rob Stutzman.