A revised version of Megan's Law went into effect this week, providing for the first time a way for gay men convicted of consensual sex under now-defunct criminal laws to remove their names from lists of registered sex offenders.
The legislation was drafted earlier this year in the wake of a Times report that elderly gay men were being forced to register as sex offenders for consensual acts they had committed with other adults decades ago, when sexual offense laws targeted homosexuals.
The legislation, backed by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, whose office drafted California's original Megan's Law, was signed by Gov. Pete Wilson last month. It went into effect over the weekend.
"Gay men no longer must face the indignity of having to undergo the annual registration as sex offenders," said Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This law is long overdue."
Named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was killed by a molester paroled in her neighborhood, versions of Megan's Law have been adopted by many states to alert communities to the movements of known sex offenders.
California's Megan's Law was passed in 1995. It called for the names and ZIP Codes of 64,000 of the state's most dangerous rapists and child molesters to be compiled on a CD-ROM, which became available for public viewing in some police stations this summer.
To compile that CD-ROM, the state Department of Justice dusted off its old sex offender registry. Since 1944, anyone convicted of a sexual offense has had to register as a sex offender with their local police. Those names were forwarded to Sacramento.
Included in that registry were the names of untold gay men convicted of crimes for consensual adult sex in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Over the years, the prosecution of gay men stopped and as mores changed and statutes were altered to cover only non-consensual sexual crimes--but they still carried the same code number.
For decades, the sex offender registry sat neglected, but when Megan's Law was passed, local police departments checked up on their sex offenders. Elderly gay men were brought into police stations and warned that failing to register was a felony.
Many feared that their names would also appear on the publicly available, but less comprehensive, CD-ROM. But Department of Justice officials said the convictions were not severe enough to be listed there. And not all the people on the state's sex offender registry appear on the CD-ROM.
A spokeswoman for Lungren said Tuesday that none of the elderly gay men are on the CD-ROM, but the ACLU disagrees.
The amended law calls for a Department of Justice study by July 1998 to settle the question of how many elderly gay men have been on the lists. It also strikes loitering in a public toilet--a misdemeanor charge frequently used in police stings on gay men--from the list of sex offenses that must be registered.
To remove their names from the registry for a consensual act under the new law, sex offenders must appeal to the Department of Justice. If that appeal is denied, they can go to court. Because many of the convictions are decades old, the offenders can describe what occurred in a declaration if court records no longer exist.