Victims' advocates are concerned that a Maryland Court of Appeals decision this week will allow some sex offenders to have their names removed from the statewide sex offender registry, but it's still unclear exactly how the ruling could affect the database.
"I do expect that other sex offenders will petition to have their names removed," said Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
In a ruling that was not unanimous, the appeals court said Monday that a man identified as John Doe should have his name taken off the registry because the requirement to do so violates the state constitution's restrictions on retroactive punishment.
The Maryland attorney general's office is reviewing the decision, and legal experts had mixed opinions on how many offenders could potentially get their names taken off the database created in 1995.
Doe was convicted in 2006 of a sex offense against a child that occurred in the 1980s. As part of the terms of his probation, he was ordered to register as a child sex offender. He later argued he shouldn't have been, because under state law at the time, the circumstances of his case didn't require it.
State legislators amended registry laws in 2009 and again 2010, requiring retroactive registrations and other changes.
Jordan said while her organization is concerned about the ruling, "there's some question as to whether the decision will really impact anyone besides Mr. Doe. The mechanics of how the opinion will be applied is an open question."
More than 8,300 people are on the sex offender registry. Of those, 1,800 committed crimes before 1995, according to the public safety department, though not all would have the same circumstances as the Doe case. Pat Cresta-Savage, an attorney for Doe, said she believes the court decision could help others get their names off the registry, but said each instance would have to be examined "on a case-by-case basis."
The ruling could require the state to remove from the list all people who had to register retroactively, said Mark Graber, a professor and associate dean at the University of Maryland's law school, based on the legal principle that, "a ruling affects all people who are affected by the general principle."
Graber said he believes the state won't be able to appeal the ruling to U.S. Supreme Court because it's based on an interpretation of the state constitution.
State Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who helped push legislation to make the registry retroactive, called the court's decision "disgusting."
"We will find some way to address this decision," which he said "literally puts every homeowner in the dark" about sex offenders in their neighborhoods.
Advocates for victims said while the ruling could remove some names from the offender database, the registry is only one way to protect people.
"The registry really creates a false sense of security, because most sex offenders are not on the registry," said Jordan, pointing to unreported sexual violence and alleged offenders who are not convicted.
The registry "is not the end-all, be-all," said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. He called the list "one of several tools that people need to use to protect their children and keep their neighborhoods safe."
James Nichols, a Baltimore attorney, filed what is known as a "friend of the court" brief in the case while representing Families Advocating Intelligent Registries (FAIR), a group founded by family members of sex offenders. Working with the Maryland Public Defenders Office and the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, Nichols said he researched punitive effects registering can have on offenders — such as the difficulty finding housing and having neighbors bothered by law enforcement officials during home checks.
"It's akin to the Scarlet Letter," he said. "Basically the court is saying this is akin to the punishment of shaming."
Nichols said this week's ruling could be used in cases involving people who were told they would have to register as sex offenders for a few years — but had to stay on the list longer as state lawmakers changed the rules.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.