Last edited: February 14, 2005

States Ease Registration Laws That Swept Up Gays

November 26, 1997

Press Release from the American Civil Liberties Union

WASHINGTON — Initially designed to target sex offenders who have abused children, new laws requiring that sex offenders be registered and that their names, addresses, and other information about them be available to the public often have a much broader sweep, the Washington Blade reports.

Caught in their net has been an undetermined number of gay men forced to register due to sometimes decades old arrests, or for more recent consensual adult gay sex.

But the Blade reports that the threat to privacy and community standing was eased for men in two states; California and Massachusetts.

A legislative victory by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California allows for the exemption of individuals convicted of consensual gay sex from registration requirements.

"Gay men," said the ACLU’s Elizabeth Schroeder, "no longer face the indignity of having to undergo annual registration as sex offenders, forced to submit fingerprints and photographs to the police like common criminals. They will no longer live in fear that neighbors will shun them by mistakenly lumping gays convicted under outdated laws with felons convicted of child molestation and rape."

And the Blade says that Massachusetts’s highest court unanimously ruled that a provision in state law requiring automatic registration of low-level offenders was unconstitutional.

The ACLU of Southern California was alerted to the problem when a gay man wrote complaining that the Los Angeles Police Department had ordered him to register as a "sex offender" because of a 1956 arrest for consensual sex.

Kelli Evans, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said the recent legislation was "especially important for gay men who have been unjustly targeted by repressive laws for so many years.

"Although the laws under which these men were convicted were struck down decades ago, the men were still in jeopardy of being stigmatized as sex offenders," Evans told the Blade. "Hopefully they will now be protected from being swept up by the unduly broad brush of sex offender registration laws."

In Massachusetts, like California, the sexual registration and notification laws are retroactive to past offenses. The "John Doe" who sued had been arrested in 1990 in a rest area, after approaching a man standing in the woods. Doe, who has already paid a fine and completed his probation, maintains that if he is forced to register and his record is available to the public, he will become a "social pariah."

Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the sex offender law violates the state Constitution’s due process guarantee and must be predicated on evidence of an offender’s future threat to the community to justify registration and disclosure.

Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, told the Blade that he remained concerned by the possibility that states that still have sodomy laws may make private, consensual gay sex a registrable offense.

"Federal law requires that you make a felony sexual assault or sexual crimes involving children registrable," Coles said, "but it doesn’t say that you can’t make other crimes registrable."

In September, the ACLU backed a bill introduced by Rep. Charles Schumer, D-NY, to penalize states if they register as sex offenders people convicted solely of consensual sodomy and similar offenses.

The measure failed in the House Judiciary Committee on a party line vote, with Democrats voting for it and Republicans against. But Christopher Anders, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said he was encouraged by the fact that Republicans used states rights rather than anti-gay arguments in opposing the measure, saying states should be able to decide what crimes to register.

"It was a good, civil debate," Anders told the Blade, "and I think it pointed out the strength of the fairness argument that the Democrats were raising."

Source: The Washington Blade, November 21, 1997

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