News on litigation and pending bills

News on litigation and pending bills - Our bill to add warning on sex offender website wins support

Several members and volunteers of CCJR spoke in favor of HB 653 to add a warning on the State Police sex offender targeting roster not to use it for vigilantism. I missed the hearing but I’m told the House Criminal Justice Committee reacted favorably to our testimony about the harassment registrants are facing all across New Hampshire. It helps that the John Doe decision was already available, reinforcing what our agency has said for five years.  Below is my written testimony of the bill.

Lawmakers need to be aware the Supreme Court issued a decision today in John Doe v NH declaring the sex offender public registry an ex post facto punishment for tier three and possibly tier two registrants convicted after 2005. You heard recent testimony from the Department of Safety that 61 percent of registrants are on tier 3. That means hundreds of registrants have just won the right to a hearing to review whether they still pose any threat to the public. If not, they will be able to leave the shaming roister. sYou should probably brace for a wave of expensive litigation. The Doe decision probably bodes well for a proposed CCJR lawsuit against the sex offender registration fee as an ex post facto punishment as well. 

In light of John Doe, we would respectfully ask lawmakers to show good faith and support HB 653, which somewhat mitigates the punitive effect of the shaming roster. The bill requires a disclaimer against vigilantism on the public registry. The State Police site already carries this warning, by the way. The commissioner posted it after board members of CCJR asked him to do so, and we are grateful. HB 653 would simply require that disclaimer as a matter of law. 

Today the warning against harassment and stalking is in six-point type at the bottom of a separate web page the viewer need not access. The bill would ensure that visitors to the targeting list have to read the warning in order to see the mug shots. The bill also enhances the penalties for vigilantism against former offenders by adding the aggravating factor of a misdemeanor to the existing penalties for what, in effect, constitutes a hate crime against registrants, their loved ones and often their landlords.

The bill addresses a huge threat to public safety, which the high court has now recognized. A registered sex offender was murdered in Keene a year ago, and an innocent farmer was bludgeoned six weeks earlier in nearby Westmoreland by a man who was probably looking for the registrant across the street and didn’t know what either man looked like. Lawrence Trant, now a state prison inmate, repeatedly stabbed a registered sex offender several years ago in Concord and tried to burn down an apartment building that housed seven registrants, along with many completely innocent tenants. A  Canadian vigilante used the public roster in neighboring Maine to find and murder two registrants at their front doors before taking his own life.

Neighbors falsely accused a Hooksett registrant of sexually abusing his nine-year-old niece in public view in his own yard. To their credit, the authorities never prosecuted him. I’ve talked to that niece and she is quite sure she was never molested. The intent was to drive a family out of town, even if it meant traumatizing an innocent third grader. 

Jennifer Frank, a campus police detective at Plymouth State University, teaches workshops on Internet safety at high schools and middle schools around New England. In 2010 she displayed student Facebook pages in front of the Cawley Middle School in Hooksett. Then she projected some of their fathers' Internet mug pages from the sex offender registry. The pre-teen audience instantly saw that several last names matched. Charles Littlefield, the Hooksett superintendent, told Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform the children of offenders were “traumatized.” Steve Harrises, the Cawley principal, told us he was “blindsided” by the assembly.

Much the same thing happened when Detective Frank went to Fall Mountain High School. Perhaps inadvertently, she outed the victims of local offenders. Steve Fortier, a school parent who is not a sex offender, gave this testimony about the event at a Senate Judiciary hearing.

“Many of the sex offenders whose information was shown are family members of teens who were sitting in the audience,” Fortier said of Detective Frank in his written testimony. “Because most youth sexual abuse is committed by a family member or someone else known by the victim, there was an even more troubling consequence. Many of the victims of the sex offenders were watching the assembly. This re-traumatization, including the stigma associated with being a teen sexual abuse victim, was, in my opinion, not worth whatever gains were made through the assembly.”

Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform documented in great detail this apparent war against registrants in our amicus brief to John Doe v. New Hampshire. We are glad the justices have heard us. We respectfully ask lawmakers to begin listening as well.

High Court gives offenders chance to leave shaming website

Last week the New Hampshire Supreme Court gave plaintiff John Doe, an anonymous registered sex offender, the right to petition to get off the pubic registry on the State Police website that targets people like him for vigilantism. Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform is still analyzing the decision, but one thing seems clear. The public list has become so onerous over time that it constitutes an ex post facto punishment for anyone who did their crime before 2006. Based on that reasoning, the high court might well have struck down the registry for this entire group, but it took the lesser step of giving those former offenders a due process hearing of some kind, presumably before their sentencing courts. It appears the burden of proof will be on the registrant to show he or she is no longer dangerous. For some time now CCJR has been planning follow-up litigation hoping for a favorable decision in John Doe, and we will discuss those options at our February board meeting this week. You may read the opinion for yourself at this link:

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