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County Fair Opens With New Exhibit

Safety: Access to Megan's Law database offered. Lungren hopes other events follow suit.

September 12, 1997|PETER Y. HONG and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Along with its usual diversions of horse racing, carnival rides, butter churning and spitting contests, Thursday's opening of the Los Angeles County Fair featured a grim new attraction: a booth that names convicted sex offenders in an area near you.

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren showed up at the fairgrounds in Pomona to promote what he hopes will be a fixture at fairs throughout California--the Megan's Law CD-ROM, which lists the names and ZIP Codes of nearly 64,000 California rapists and child molesters.

Although that information was initially only available in some local police stations, Lungren set up access terminals at last month's state fair in Sacramento.

Lungren said more than 3,500 people at the Sacramento fair searched for names of sex offenders. That "very, very successful" experiment prompted him to bring the display to Los Angeles, he said.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 13, 1997 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Lungren quote--A reference following a quote by California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren that appeared in Friday's editions was incorrect. Lungren said "not a single act of vigilantism" has resulted from a state-run telephone service offering the names and ZIP Codes of California sex offenders.

"Most people don't know it's available, and some are wary of walking into a police station. It occurred to me, what better place is there than a fair?" Lungren said.

More than 50 people an hour were using the seven computer terminals set up in one of the fair's large exhibit halls.

Those wishing to search the database had to first present a California driver's license or state identification card and have their name run through the database to verify that they were not sex offenders. Law enforcement officials had feared that sex offenders might use the database to meet others and form networks.

The Megan's Law booth easily outdrew a neighboring exhibit peddling instructional videotapes for operating software.

Nearly all of the booth's visitors praised it enthusiastically. One Riverside woman said she found a man on the database who works in a children's shoe store near her home. "It's good this is here; he could be doing it again," said the woman, who declined to give her name.

The attorney general's staff members running the booths record the names of sex offenders who fair-goers say are in positions of authority with children. Those names are then turned over to local law enforcement officials, Lungren said.

Lungren said the exhibit in Sacramento produced 57 "hits," which he defined as identification by fair-goers of "registrants in a situation where they pose a risk to a child or adult." He said such situations could include a former sex offender coaching a children's sports team, which in some circumstances could be illegal.

Lungren said there have been criminal proceedings as a result of the 57 reports at the Sacramento fair exhibit, but said he did not know how many.

Some fair-goers were concerned that those who had served their sentences and are now law-abiding could be victimized by the law. "I understand the problem and understand why people want this, but we need to safeguard constitutional rights, " said Carol DuPree, 52, of Altadena.

Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, criticized the exhibit because the CD-ROM on which it is based is, by Lungren's own admission, inaccurate. As many as 40% of those listed reportedly have moved, are in jail or have died.

Opponents of the Megan's Law database have said it might result in vigilante-style attacks on those listed.

Lungren said at the fair that "not a single act of vigilantism" has resulted from the database. However, in July the van of a registered Covina sex offender was firebombed the week the database was released.

In the months before that, several Orange County sex offenders whose identities were released by police--which Megan's Law allows--left their homes after persistent picketing by neighbors.

Named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl slain by a paroled molester, the 1996 Megan's Law created the database--which lists names, photographs and ZIP Codes of sex offenders--and mandated that it be available in county sheriff stations and police stations in cities with populations of more than 200,000.

County fair officials said the attorney general's office was given the exhibit space for free because another exhibitor canceled its display. Exhibit space at the fair normally costs about $1,500 for the duration of the 18-day event. The Megan's Law display will continue until the fair ends Sept. 28.

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