As we've reported, Montrose County, on Colorado's Western Slope, pulled its sex-offender list offline following a recent court ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch found that such registries constituted cruel and unusual punishment in the case of three plaintiffs. The ruling is specific to the complainants in question, rather than everyone on the roster, and Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has announced her intention to appeal. So why make the move now? According to a representative from the sheriff's office in Montrose, a fear of lawsuits.
"There are attorneys out there going around and finding people to sue for stuff of this nature," says Undersheriff Adam Murdie. "We know it's going to trickle down to the counties eventually, so we're kind of preempting that."
A quick recap: Under current Colorado law, sex offenders must register with law enforcement on an annual basis, as well as each time they relocate. In addition, those convicted of child sex crimes are required to give authorities all of their email addresses and chat-room identities — and much of this information is available to any web surfer via the convicted-sex-offender page on the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's website. Moreover, plenty of counties and communities maintain their own pages, including Denver.
Critics have long argued that this system is mainly about afflicting "retribution or additional punishment," in a phrase quoted by Matsch. Likewise, the plaintiffs represented by Boulder attorney Alison Ruttenberg — David Millard, Eugene Knight and Arturo Vega — say they've been subjected to widespread community ostracism and more, with no way to move forward. Vega, for instance, has a single offense on his record, dating from when he was just thirteen. But even though he hasn't committed another sex crime since then, he's been rejected in two attempts to petition off the registry.
Matsch's ruling only affects Millard, Knight and Vega, but the language he used certainly suggests the possibility for wider utilization. "There is a rational relationship between the registration requirements and the legislative purpose of giving members of the public the opportunity to protect themselves and their children from sex offenses," he wrote. "But what the plaintiffs have shown is that the public has been given, commonly exercises, and has exercised against these plaintiffs the power to inflict punishments beyond those imposed through the courts, and to do so arbitrarily and with no notice, no procedural protections and no limitations or parameters on their actions other than the potential for prosecution if their actions would be a crime."
He concluded: "The fear that pervades the public reaction to sex offenses — particularly as to children — generates reactions that are cruel and in disregard of any objective assessment of the individual’s actual proclivity to commit new sex offenses. The failure to make any individual assessment is a fundamental flaw in the system."
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To put it mildly, Murdie and his colleagues feel differently: Speaking for the sheriff's office, he says, "We are supportive of the registry." However, he goes on, "at the Montrose County Sheriff's Office, part of our job is to mitigate against liability for the community — and this is part of mitigating that liability in the long run. Without having enough information to go forward, we made the decision to pull the registry off the sheriff's office website."
That's not the final word on the subject, though. "We're seeking guidance from the County Sheriffs of Colorado organization and our attorneys to see where we should be on this issue," Murdie reveals. Should these sources successfully reassure Montrose Sheriff Rick Dunlap that the risk of a lawsuit at the county level is at an acceptable level, he says, "it could come back online" at the MCSO site.
In the meantime, Murdie continues, "we are still submitting information about new registrants to the CBI — and they're keeping the state registry up. If people call in and ask for that information, or can't seem to find it, we point them right to the CBI website, where they can still access everything for Montrose County."
But presumably, Montrose can't be sued for it.