Judge Rules Sex-Offender Registry "Cruel and Unusual"

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation's website includes a roster of sex offenders who've failed to register their location and are sought for outstanding warrants.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation's website includes a roster of sex offenders who've failed to register their location and are sought for outstanding warrants.
A veteran federal judge has ruled that Colorado's sex-offender registry violates rights of due process and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Dated August 31, U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Matsch's scathing opinion applies only to three plaintiffs, all convicted sex offenders, who complained that the registry's requirements had made it difficult for them to find employment and housing and set them up for harassment long after they'd served their prison time. But to the extent that the plaintiffs' experiences mirror those of other felons on the list, the ruling could have far-reaching implications.

State law requires convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement on an annual basis or every time they move to a new address. Those convicted of "child sex crimes" are also required to provide all email addresses and chat-room identities. Much of their personal information then becomes available on the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's website; it also finds its way to for-profit operations peddling background checks, neighborhood watch groups and other sites.

State officials maintain that the list serves a public-safety purpose and isn't intended to "inflict retribution or additional punishment" on offenders. Critics of the registry say it casts too wide a net, from violent sexual predators to juveniles having underage sex (one form of "child sex crime"), and encourages vigilante actions. One of the three plaintiffs in the case completed his probation a decade ago for a 1999 offense but has had to shift jobs and apartments repeatedly after neighbors or customers discover — through a lurid TV report, from the CBI website or from police — that he's one of society's pariahs. After having his car keyed and other acts of vandalism, he now "does little more than go to work, isolating himself at his home," Matsch writes.

The second plaintiff, whose offense dates back to when he was eighteen years old, isn't allowed to pick up his daughter on school grounds because of his listing on the registry. Although he completed his probation several years ago, he can't seek his removal from the registry until 2021.

The third plaintiff was convicted of a sex offense when he was thirteen. Although there's a process for offenders to remove their names from the registry for crimes committed when they were juveniles, Matsch describes it as a "Kafka-esque procedure" that requires the defendant to prove a negative — that he or she is "not likely" to commit another sex crime.

Matsch found the "public shaming" and harassment that results from a person's name appearing on the registry to be a form of punitive action beyond the actual sentence for the offense, particularly given the ease with which information now moves from government sites to social media and beyond: "A convicted offender is knowingly
placed in peril of additional punishment, beyond that to which he has been sentenced pursuant to legal proceedings and due process, at the random whim and caprice of unknowable and unpredictable members of the public. This risk continues for the entire time a sex offender is on the registry, and perhaps even beyond that if he is fortunate enough to eventually deregister."

The Colorado Attorney General's Office has not yet indicated whether it will appeal the decision.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast