WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether states may post on their Web sites the names and photos of convicted sex offenders regardless of whether they continue to pose a danger to the community.
Last year, a federal appeals court barred Connecticut from posting the names of its ex-offenders until each of them was given a hearing on whether they pose a danger now.
The case, to be heard in the fall, could limit the use of so-called Megan's Laws that have been adopted in every state.
They were named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by a paroled sex offender who, unbeknownst to her parents, had moved into the neighborhood.
States have adopted different definitions of who is included in their public registry of sex offenders and how this information is made public.
Connecticut has a broad system that includes virtually all sex criminals, from first-time, nonviolent offenders to repeat rapists. And the state posts this information online for 10 years after the criminals are released.
Those convicted of violent sex crimes remain on the registry for life.
California has the nation's oldest sex registry law, but its postings are limited to serious sex offenders and are not available on the Internet.
"The Legislature has not wanted to put those names on the Internet, but anyone can go to a sheriff's office or a police station and check for names and ZIP Codes," said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Justice.
The state's Violent Crime Information Center lists 94,000 sex offenders, including people who are convicted of sexual assaults, rapes or lewd and lascivious conduct with minors.
Among these, 1,742 people are classified as "high-risk" offenders because they have repeatedly committed violent sex crimes. Police can take special steps to notify the community when such a person moves into an area.
But the state law also says it is illegal to use this information to harass or punish a paroled sex offender.
A broad ruling in favor of the privacy rights of ex-offenders could have an effect on California's system. It would certainly affect the 20 states that routinely post the names of all sex offenders.
But the justices agreed to hear an appeal from Connecticut prosecutors who say these postings do not violate the constitutional rights of ex-offenders.
A state's "publishing true and accurate information about [a criminal] and his conviction history" does not clash with the U.S. Constitution, Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal said in his appeal.
He relies heavily on a 1976 opinion written by then-Justice William H. Rehnquist, which held that a person's reputation is not protected by the Constitution. An accused shoplifter from Louisville, Ky., had sued the police chief for putting out a flier that included his name and photo on a list of "active shoplifters." The charge was later dropped and the man sued, claiming the officials had damaged his reputation.
But Rehnquist said there is no such right in the U.S. Constitution. States may not deprive persons of "liberty without due process of law," but the issuance of the flier did not amount to depriving him of liberty, he wrote. However, the plaintiff was free to sue a local official for defamation under state law, he added.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York acknowledged that ruling in considering the challenge to Connecticut's sex offender registry. Its judges said the state went beyond damaging the ex-offender's reputation by posting his name and photo. The state also requires offenders to supply a blood sample and to notify officials immediately whenever they change residence.
"We hold that the plaintiff and members of the class are entitled to have a hearing ... to determine whether or not they are likely to be currently dangerous before being labeled as such" in the state's registry, said the judges of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
The law had been challenged by the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two unnamed ex-offenders who say they are not dangerous.
The court will hear their case, Connecticut Department of Public Safety vs. Doe, 01-1231, in the fall.
A second, related challenge is also due to be heard then. In an Alaska case, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said states may not post on the Internet the names of sex offenders whose crimes took place before the sex registry system became law.
In that case, Otte vs. Doe, 01-729, the justices voted to hear the state's appeal.