Sex offender lawsuit uncovers registry loophole

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(Host) Some sex offenders living in Vermont will not be listed on an "expanded Internet registry" because of an inadvertent mistake by the Legislature.

The mistake was discovered when two of the offenders sued the state over the new registry requirements.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) Lawmakers re-wrote the sex offender law this spring to expand the number of people whose names should be posted on the state’s Internet listing of convicted sex offenders. The Legislature wanted to include people who had committed sex crimes in other states.

But instead, they ended up writing a loophole into the law. Assistant Attorney General Keith Aten explained what happened during a hearing in Washington Superior Court.

(Aten) The legislators have acknowledged this, there was a drafting error in the legislation, to the effect that Act 58 does not apply at all to people convicted for offenses committed out of state.

(Dillon) The disclosure came as the court considered a lawsuit filed by two Caledonia County men.

Both were convicted in the 1990s for crimes committed out of state. They filed suit to stop the new registration requirements from going into effect.

They argued that they had served their sentences and were released from probation. They said that public disclosure of their names and addresses on the Internet would amount to unconstitutional additional punishment.

But the case became moot as the drafting error came to light. St. Johnsbury attorney David Sleigh represents the two men, and he was on a speaker phone in the courtroom.

(Sleigh) If what Mr. Aten is saying is that he agrees with us that Act 58 does not apply to my clients, then I think we could draft a consent order that the state will do nothing to alter their current status under prior law and do nothing to cause their information to be posted on the Internet.

(Dillon) Lawmakers learned of the mistake in a meeting of the Legislature’s Corrections Oversight Committee.

Erik FitzPatrick drafted the bill for the legislative counsel’s office. He told the committee that the intent was to limit the ability of out of state sex offenders to challenge their listing on the Vermont Internet registry.

(Fitzpatrick) We wanted to make them not subject to the appeal. In fact they’re not subject to the Internet.

(Dillon) Bennington Senator Dick Sears chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said the mistake will be fixed when the Legislature returns in January. And he pointed that out of state offenders are still included on a Vermont registry – they’re just not listed on the Internet. The public can still check with the police to see if someone is listed.

(Sears) So I don’t think it will really affect public safety. I think it’s important for the public to understand just because somebody isn’t on the Internet registry doesn’t mean they’re (not) a danger. They may never have been convicted of a crime. And we know in Vermont roughly 95 percent of those who abuse children are very familiar with that child. They groom them; they know them. And so it’s still incumbent on people to check with their local police departments to see if this person is on the registry or not.

(Dillon) Attorney David Sleigh – who filed the lawsuit – said he hopes lawmakers next year take the opportunity to add appeals rights for people to challenge their listing on the public registry.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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