Notification of location of sex offenders sought

March 01, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Parents and advocates for children urged state legislators yesterday to require that communities be notified when a convicted child sex offender moves in.

In a sometimes emotional hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, parents argued that they have a right to know when a convicted sex offender comes into their neighborhood and poses a risk to their children.

"I plead for you to pass this law," said Nina Arthese of Baltimore, whose son was abducted by a pedophile in the mid-1970s. "I would have been better prepared if I had known."

Most witnesses spoke in favor of the bill, but the American Civil Liberties Union and several legislators raised concerns about privacy rights and the potential for vigilantism. They cited a recent New Jersey case in which a father and son learned that a released sex offender was staying in their neighborhood, then broke into a house and beat up the wrong man.

"Do you give people his name and address so they can go hunt him down?" said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Del. Ann Marie Doory, vice-chairwoman of the committee and sponsor of House Bill 761, summarized the view of many supporters of the measure: "Are we going to worry about our kids walking home . . . or are we going to worry about privacy rights of convicted sex offenders?"

Such community notification laws are not uncommon. Twelve states, including Virginia, Maine, Oregon, Washington and New Jersey, require some type of notification when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

The issue has received national attention in the past year because of the case of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and strangled, allegedly by a neighbor who was a convicted sex offender. Because of that crime, the New Jersey legislature passed a package of bills last fall that require community notification and came to be known collectively as "Megan's Law."

The New Jersey legislation has been challenged in state and federal courts. A federal judge in Newark ruled yesterday that the section requiring public notification is unconstitutional, calling it additional punishment for sex offenders. But supporters have said they expect the courts to uphold the measure ultimately.

Ms. Doory's bill is not specific about how communities would be notified. She said the mechanism would need to be developed in consultation with law enforcement officials and others.

Given the emotion, controversy and civil rights questions surrounding the issue, she acknowledged that passage of the measure won't be easy.

"I think it is going to be a challenge," said Ms. Doory, a Baltimore Democrat. "You want to make sure it's done properly and it doesn't create greater problems."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. sounded a little more optimistic. He said he thought the General Assembly would pass a version of the bill permitting residents to call a police registry of sexual offenders to learn if one lived in their neighborhood. "I think there's a good shot," he said.

A far less controversial element of the bill calls for the state to create a database of sex offenders so that law enforcement agencies can keep track of them.

The 1994 federal crime bill requires that states pass such a program by 1998 or lose some federal funding, which in Maryland's case would amount to $490,000. Forty states already have similar laws.

Ms. Doory said she did not expect a committee vote on the bill until mid-March.

A hearing on a companion measure, Senate Bill 418, is scheduled for March 8 in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

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