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A Scarlet Letter: Sex Offender Status to Be Put on Passports

Over a year since the law was passed the State Department has begun enforcing provisions of the International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders–more colloquially known as the International Megan’s Law or H.R. 515–requiring the passports of registered sex offenders convicted of sex offenses involving a minor to bear a notice saying, “the bearer was convicted of a sex offense against a minor.”

The International Megan’s Law was introduced back in 2015 and signed into law by former-President Obama on February 2nd, 2016. There are many provisions of the law, however the relevant ones here require sex offenders whose crime involves a minor to bear passports including the above discussed notice. The law also requires offenders to give law enforcement 21 days notice before travelling out of the country.

sex offenderThe law has obviously been in effect for over a year, but as of a few days ago the State Department will begin revoking the existing passports of covered sex offenders and requiring them to apply for new passports bearing the notice. The goal of this law is to target and eliminate sex tourism, a serious issue. According to the State Department, the passport notice and provisions of the law will not prevent a sex offender from leaving the country altogether or affect the validity of their passports in any way–although they do acknowledge that other countries may take a different approach.

Despite these reassurances, there have been some who have raised questions about the legality of these provisions. An organization known as California Reform Sex Offender Laws brought a lawsuit almost immediately after the law was passed. The right to travel freely is often discussed as a fundamental human right, so the concerns are not completely meritless. However, the goal of eliminating sex tourism is hard to argue with. To better understand the situation, let’s look at the original Megan’s Law, the International Megan’s Law, and the resolution of the lawsuit brought against the law.

The Original Megan’s Law

Megan’s Law is fairly well known, but for those unfamiliar it is the informal name for the laws creating the public registry of sex offenders. In the wake of the horrific rape and murder of a young girl named Megan Kanka, states across the nation created laws requiring registration after somebody is convicted. The laws vary a bit from state to state in terms of what information is publically available, what offenses require registration if convicted, requirements placed on registered offenders etc. Some common information that is publically available includes names, pictures, addresses, conviction/incarceration dates, and the type of crime they were convicted of.

The laws have occasionally faced challenges and criticism. These criticisms usually trend towards the laws either being overly restrictive or overbroad in who is required to register. For example, public urination is an offense that often requires registration. Another common criticism is that the laws tend to paint with broad strokes in terms of making little to moderate distinctions between types of offenses. Regardless of these criticisms, the laws have consistently been supported in the courts.

Potential Issues with The International Megan’s Law

The International Megan’s Law has a great deal more elements than the passport provisions discussed above. For example, in addition to the passport provisions, the law allows the U.S. to notify destination countries if an offender is travelling to their country. Stopping sex tourism is hard to argue with, especially when the provisions are exclusively targeted at sex offenders with crimes involving minors. However, this has certainly not stopped critics from commenting on the law. Surprisingly, not everything these critics say is necessarily completely off the mark.

As mentioned, the law was created to stymie sex tourism and child sex trafficking. When originally passed, representatives made it clear that no one law could totally stop these issues but argued that every step towards eliminating them was an important one. However, critics have pointed out that the issue targeted may have been more of a talking point than a realistic problem. In a five-year period, there were only three convictions for sexual offenses overseas out of the over 800,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. today. What’s more, statistics do seem to show than the percentage of registered offenders who commit similar crimes again is very low–in the realm of 3%. The critics argue that the new passports are a sort of “Scarlett Letter” singling out registered offenders even more than before and that the law does not address a problem as widespread as Congress suggested or effectively deal with sex tourism. These criticisms led to the lawsuit discussed above from the California Reform Sex Offenders Laws.

The Arguments of the Lawsuit

The lawsuit primarily focused on how much the laws could limit travel and how potentially overbroad the provisions were–including those convicted of crimes such as sexting or public urination. The plaintiffs in the case included several people who specifically highlighted this potential over breadth and would need special passports–a man whose conviction had been expunged, a man sentenced to only probation and not required to register because his crime was particularly minor, and a man convicted 25 years ago. At least one of these three was required to routinely travel to China for work, so the passport requirement hit him particularly close to home. The lawsuit argued that the law was unconstitutional because it compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment, retroactively punishes people (generally a legal no-no), denied them equal protection of the law and denied them the right to legal process in defending their passports. The court in question did not buy any of these arguments and dismissed the case in September of 2016.

The judge ruled that the lawsuit, brought before passport provisions had taken effect, had no actual injury but only a speculative one–an actual injury is required for standing to challenge a law. However, the judge still took the time to rule that despite not having standing the case would have lost anyway. Government speech, such as the contents of a passport or driver’s license, is not protected by the First Amendment. Court’s have long held that registration of sex offenders–no matter how substantial or far reaching the impact on a registrant’s life–don’t implicate retroactive punishment issues as they are not punitive measures. The judge also ruled that the registrants already got their due process–when they were first convicted of the crime they had to register for. Finally, she ruled that there was no constitutionally protected class that was targeted by the law and that it only required a rational basis–the least rigorous constitutionality test–to be considered constitutional. The judge said that the International Megan’s Law met this test.

Law Potentially More Effective Than Anticipated

As of now, the International Megan’s Law and its passport provisions are constitutional. However, with the passport provisions taking effect there is an actual harm that may give a lawsuit standing to challenge the law and the district court ruling on the matter. But, it looks like the provisions are here to stay. What’s more, it looks like they are having an effect.

The author of the law has said Thailand has expressed gratitude for the passage of the International Megan’s Law. Apparently, over 160 convicted sex offenders have been caught trying to enter the country.  It is not clear whether these offenders were entering for the purposes of sex tourism, but Thailand has an unfortunate reputation as destination for this sort of activity. Ultimately, it’s hard to argue against any step designed to reduce such heinous behavior. It is certainly crucially important to protect the constitutional rights of all–including those who have been convicted of a crime. The arguments that the potential benefits of the law could be outweighed by the harm they do isn’t one to dismiss out of hand. However, for now the International Megan’s Law is a constitutional law protecting children across the world.

Jonathan Lurie

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