April 12, 2010

Could a traffic stop land you on a sex offender registry?

"The ever-growing sex offender registry"

That's the headline on today's top story at Stateline.org, a nonpartisan online news site funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Reports John Gramlich:
A decade ago, when James Smith was 17, he and an accomplice forced another 17-year-old into a car with them near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The two wanted to collect drug money from a friend of the boy, and they forced him go along for the ride, making clear to him that if he didn’t, "he is going to get what is coming to him," according to the criminal complaint in the case. After the incident, Smith was convicted of a crime called "false imprisonment."

No one disputes that Smith was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. What Smith and many others watching his case found surprising was that the state of Wisconsin ordered him to register as a sex offender. Although his crime was not in any way sexual in nature, Smith's photo was posted in an online registry. He also faced restrictions in some parts of the state on how close he can live to schools, parks and other places where children commonly gather.

Last month, the highest court in Wisconsin held that Smith does, in fact, belong on the sex-offender registry. Just days earlier, the Supreme Court of Georgia came to the same conclusion in another case in which a man named Jake Rainer had been convicted on the same charge as Smith. The crime of false imprisonment, both courts found, counts as a sex offense under state law, even if nothing sexual happened.

The cases of Smith and Rainer illustrate a larger debate that is emerging in courts and legislatures around the nation: Have states gone too far in categorizing criminals as sex offenders? …

Critics argue that the court's decision implies that nearly anyone convicted of almost any crime could be added to the sex-offender registry. That’s what Ann Walsh Bradley, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who dissented in Smith's case, thinks. "Because traffic offenders may create a danger to the public," Bradley wrote in her dissenting opinion, "any offender found guilty of a traffic infraction could be required to register as a 'sex offender.' " …
Gramlich's provocative and fact-filled analysis continues HERE.

Credit: Stateline.org
Hat tip: Niki Delson