Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maine Lawmakers to Revise Sex Offender Law Lawmakers discuss sex offender law.

Augusta, Maine — State lawmakers reopened the books on Maine’s controversial sex offender law on Wednesday in the wake of a recent court ruling questioning the constitutionality of aspects of the registry.

Late last month, Maine’s highest court gave the Legislature slightly more than three months to revise a 1999 state law requiring certain sex offenders to essentially re-register with police every 90 days for the rest of their lives. The court said applying that lifetime requirement retroactively without the possibility of a waiver was unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Janet T. Mills told a legislative committee that the Supreme Judicial Court upheld Maine's right to maintain and publish — including on the Internet — a list of convicted sex offenders in the interest of public safety. Additionally, the law can remain in place for people convicted after the 1999 law took effect.

But Mills said the court’s ruling means the Legislature will have to take steps to address sex offenders convicted between 1982 and 1999.

Under current law, anyone convicted of a sex offense or sexually violent offense since Jan. 1, 1982, is required to register with the state. But the law has gone through various iterations in response to public outcry, national requirements and legal challenges.

The case brought before the Supreme Judicial Court involved Eric Letalien, a Dixfield man who was 19 when he was convicted of rape in 1996 for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. At the time, he was required to register as a sex offender for 15 years, but was also allowed to seek a waiver from the registry after five years. Under the changes enacted in 1999, he was required to register as a sex offender every 90 days for the rest of his life. The updated law also took away his right to ask for a waiver.

Mills presented the committee with several options. Committee members also expressed an interest in simultaneously reviewing a bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Anne Haskell, of Portland, that would rewrite various aspects of the law. The first option presented by Mills was to repeal the lifetime registration requirement and the mandatory check-in with police every 90 days for anyone convicted before the 1999 law. A more complicated but constitutionally sound option would be to create what Mills called a “rolling registry” where offenders would only have to follow the laws that were on the books at the time of their conviction. The state could also keep lifetime registration but allow convicted offenders the opportunity to seek a waiver from that requirement if they met certain requirements, such as no subsequent offenses.

The retroactive application of registration requirements has long been one of the most hotly debated aspects of an already controversial law. Critics argue that requiring registration for people convicted before the law took effect constitutes additional punishment on many people who served their time and have had no subsequent violations.

Zachary Heiden, legal director with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said he believes simply eliminating the retroactivity of the law is the best and simplest option. While waivers may make sense from a policy standpoint, waivers may not meet the constitutional test, he said.