Everyone knows that a sex offender registry exists. Almost everyone knows where to find it online. People use it routinely, even if just for fun. You log on and you search for your town and you see all the creepy people living around you. You may know some of them.
And almost everyone knows that there’s a second “secret” registry. A registry of a much smaller number of individuals, who are permitted to have their names removed from the aforementioned “public” registry (I put public in quotes because all conviction information, whether on the regular list or on the secret list, is still public and you can walk to your local courthouse or police department and get that information) for a variety of reasons – primarily to protect the identity of the victim. There are about 40 people on this “secret” registry. There are thousands on the “public” one.
In an important decision today, the CT Supreme Court reaffirmed that the “secret” registry must remain secret. In Dep’t of Public Safety v. FOI Commission (concurrence), a unanimous court held that “duh! do not disseminate means do not disseminate!” Of course, this all started not because Nosy Neighbor sought this information, but because a reporter did*.
A reporter for the Manchester Journal Inquirer wrote to the department of public safety and asked not for the name and address of the defendant, but basically everything else: the court of conviction, the name of the judge, the name of the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The department refused, the FOI commission ordered the department to turn it over and a trial court supported the commission’s ruling. Until the Supreme Court ruled. The question, boringly enough, turns on the meaning of the phrase “registration information”. Does that mean only the name and address of the registrant, as the newspaper argued, or everything that the department of public safety is required to catalog and maintain, as they argued?
There is no language in Megan’s Law that restricts the meaning of ‘‘registration information’’ to only some of the information in the registry.
The opinion makes the compelling point that for the “public” registry, all “registration information” is available to the public. One cannot then turn around and say that the same word, when applied to the “secret” registry means something different:
General Statutes § 54-258 (a) (1) provides in relevant part that ‘‘the registry maintained by the Department of Public Safety shall be a public record and shall be accessible to the public during normal business hours. . . .’’ There is no limiting language suggesting that only some of the information in the registry shall be accessible to the public. Correspondingly, General Statutes § 54-258 (a) (4) provides that, ‘‘[n]otwithstanding the provisions of subdivisions (1) and (2) of this subsection, registration information the dissemination of which has been restricted by court order pursuant to section 54- 255 and which is not otherwise subject to disclosure, shall not be a public record . . . .’’
Because the boldface title of § 54-258 refers to the ‘‘[a]vailability of registration information,’’ we must assume that all of its subsections and subdivisions refer to the same information. Thus, we must conclude that, just as the statute provides that all of the information in the registry is accessible to the public with respect to the overwhelming majority of offenders, none of the information in the registry is accessible to the public in the very few cases in which the court determines that the information should be restricted pursuant to § 54-258 (a) (4).
Judiciary Committee co-chair Mike Lawlor, whose remark (no, that’s not a typo) during the debate on the bill is heavily relied upon by the newspaper in support of its argument, is quoted in this Courant report:
State Rep. Michal Lawlor, co-chairman of the judiciary committee and one of the architects of the online registry, said the restricted list is intended to protect victims from further trauma.
He recalled a case in which a child, under the age of 6, was molested by her father. The man went to prison; the child grew up. When the man got out, he rejoined the family and was receiving counseling. In 1998, when the Internet sex-offender registry was created, the man’s name was posted. The daughter was in high school. She was shunned from events for fear that the father would show up. His name was eventually removed from the public list.
Lawlor noted that conviction information remains available through other channels, “but our concern was to keep it off the Internet registry, where it is obviously more visible.”
(*By the way, given the amount of grief I give newspaper reports and their coverage of legal issues, it is only fair to point out that this Courant piece by Josh Kovner is concise, precise and accurate. Well done, Josh!)
It seems that the Court got the legislature’s intent right. And so the “secret” registry lives on, protecting the identities of 40 victims and allowing them and their families a fair chance at reintegrating into society and living productive lives. Now if we could only do something about those thousands others whose names and pictures are readily available at the click of a button.