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High Court Upholds 'Megan's Law' in Controversial Decision

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Supreme Court Monday rejected a constitutional challenge to "Megan's Law," the New Jersey statute that requires authorities to notify communities of convicted sex offenders in their neighborhoods.

The law, named for a 7-year-old girl who was raped and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender, was the first of its kind. Provoked by the tragedy of Megan Kanka and by New Jersey's 1995 law, 36 other states have since adopted similar statutes.

Community notification laws and harsher penalties for sex crimes are part of a national trend to try to protect children from those who would prey on them. But such efforts also have drawn protests from defense lawyers who say civil liberties and rights are being trampled.

In the Megan's Law case, a group of sex offenders whose crimes were committed before the New Jersey law was enacted, sued, claiming the policy making their names and addresses public and subjecting them to community harassment and violence imposes a second punishment on them, violating the double-jeopardy guarantee against multiple punishments.

They also argued that the law's retroactive effect breached the guarantee against ex post facto laws. The Constitution prohibits laws that increase the punishment for a defendant beyond what was on the books when a crime was committed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld Megan's Law last year. The appeals court said the law cannot be considered additional "punishment," ruling, "The state had imposed no restrictions on a [person's] ability to live and work in a community, to move from place to place, to obtain a professional license or to secure governmental benefits."

Monday's Supreme Court action, letting that ruling stand, sets no national precedent and does not stop legal challenges to other state laws. However, it does offer a vote of confidence to states requiring prosecutors to notify local residents about convicted sex offenders. Under Megan's Law, prosecutors evaluate the record of a convict's offense and other private information to determine his or her potential risk to the community before deciding how extensive community notice should be.

The high court order, made public in a one-sentence order in a day of varied court business, was not accompanied by any comment from the justices.