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THE SUPREME COURT

Police, Advocates for Victims Hail Megan's Laws Ruling

Decision allows states to expand public access to information about sex offenders, experts say.

March 06, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court decision Wednesday upholding Megan's laws was lauded by victims' rights advocates and law enforcement officials, who said the ruling could ease the way for California and other states to broaden public access to information about sex offenders.

In California, efforts to put details about registered sex offenders on the Internet have failed because of opposition by civil libertarians and concerns about legality. But the Supreme Court's decision, which puts to rest any questions about the constitutionality of online access, opens the door for expanding Megan's laws everywhere, legal experts said.

Megan's laws generally mandate disclosure of information on registered sex offenders. All 50 states have adopted the law in one form or another but vary in how much information is disseminated.

Across the nation, 34 states post detailed information -- such as names, photos and addresses -- on the Internet, according to Parents for Megan's Law, a nonprofit group based in New York. Some states require that communities be notified when paroled sex criminals move in.

California does not require such notification and does not provide online access. Information is available at police stations, where an officer can call up a statewide database. The public can also request information over the phone by calling a 900 number and paying $10 for two names. Some counties offer limited information over the Internet.

In contrast, Texas allows anyone to search, by name or ZIP Code, through a Web site. In New York, a telephone check costs 50 cents for five names.

Law enforcement officials in California said they would welcome greater public access.

"It's been debated in Sacramento year after year," Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said: "The public has the right to know as much as possible about things that affect their safety."

"The sex offenders themselves need to know that there is a vigilant society," Baca said. "Society is at a disadvantage if there is anonymity."

About 500,000 Californians have accessed Megan's laws information in the last few years, Lockyer said. But others say public interest fades when there are no big cases in the media about child killings or abductions.

At the Los Angeles Police Department, each of its 18 stations that offer sex-offender information averages about one or two public requests per month, said Cmdr. Valentino Paniccia.

Having to travel to a police station is "a huge disadvantage for many parents or rural residents," said state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Fresno), who recently proposed legislation that would post sex-offender information online and ensure accurate data.

The movement toward giving the public greater access has alarmed civil rights advocates.

"It gives people a false sense of security," said Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "It lowers [sex offenders'] chances of being re-integrated into society."

Paul Gerowitz, executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said: "These are people who have paid their debts to society. It's an invasion of privacy and it leaves them open to various forms of ... retribution by society."

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