Category Archives: sex offenders

I know it when I see it

obscene

Finally, my favorite subject: pornography. Everyone has to have heard of Justice Potter Stewart’s words which form the title of this post, written in a concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, on the issue of “obscene” videos. And almost no one knows what it means. After a flurry of decisions in the 1960s and 70s (Stanley v. GA, Smith v. CA, Miller v. CA, Jenkins v. GA) attempting to define exactly what is obscene and what is protected and just who can be prosecuted with and ending up with a mess of a Constitutional doctrine, the Supreme Court – and the general American public – seem to have given up on pornography altogether. No one really cares anymore and there’s hardly ever a prosecution for the production, sale and possession of adult pornography.

Unless you’re a sex offender on probation, of course. Enter Robert Stephens. Stephens was convicted of possession of child pornography and as part of his sentence, was placed on probation. Some of his conditions were as follows:

One of the seven special conditions was that the defendant’s access to any computer must be approved by the office of adult probation. Among the special  sex offender conditions were that the defendant (1) not possess, or subscribe to, any sexually stimulating material deemed inappropriate by a probation  officer, (2) not possess a camera, DVD player, camcorder, videocassette recorder or other similar equipment without the approval of a probation officer, and  (3) submit to an examination and search of his computer or other similar equipment to verify that it was not being utilized in violation of his probation or  treatment.

Note that the condition isn’t “obscene” material, but rather “sexually stimulating material deemed inappropriate by a probation officer”. More on that later.

As is the natural course of events for sex offenders, he was found in violation of his probation for having a few nude photographs of his ex girlfriend and duly sentenced to 42 months in prison. He appealed, claiming that the condition:

The Aftermath

It’s no secret that if there’s one type of case that a defense attorney really fears, it’s the one involving allegations of sexual assault against a child. They’re morally repugnant crimes, which can be alleged with surprising ease and little evidence to back them, making them nightmares to defend. Add to that the stigma that is now attached, the media scrutiny, the complete disregard for the presumption of innocence and the witch hunt under way and you have the perfect recipe for sleepless nights and ruined lives.

This week, the Washington Post published a lengthy, powerful article on the aftermath of such a (false) allegation against an elementary school teacher in Fairfax, VA.

Sean Lanigan’s nightmare began in January 2010, when the principal at Centre Ridge Elementary School pulled him out of the physical education class he was teaching and quietly walked him into an interrogation with two Fairfax County police detectives.

He had no warning that a 12-year-old girl at the Centreville school had accused him of groping and molesting her in the gym.

The girl, angry at Lanigan about something else entirely, had made the whole thing up. But her accusations launched a soul-sapping rollercoaster ride that still hasn’t ended.

Lanigan’s story captures all the problems with child sexual abuse cases: an overenthusiastic willingness to believe the accuser, blinders that inhibit careful investigation, witnesses getting locked into stories they can’t get out of, job loss, media lynching and stubborn prosecutors digging their heels in, unable to see beyond the blind faith in their dubious complainants:

Lanigan spent months in anxious exile, forced from his school, his players, his neighbors and his friends, pondering the possibility of up to 40 years in a state penitentiary.That soon turned to relief. A jury found him not guilty after just 47 minutes of deliberation — virtually unheard of in a child sex abuse case. Jurors were outraged by the lack of evidence, with one weeping in sympathy during closing arguments.

But still the nightmare continues, as Lanigan struggles to earn back his reputation and career.

Within two weeks of the accuser’s report — without ever speaking to the girl — Fairfax detectives arrested Lanigan and charged him with aggravated sexual battery and abduction.

And then came the collateral consequences:

Police issued a press release with Lanigan’s booking photo and home address, and the school district sent home a letter about his arrest. TV trucks descended on the school and his neighborhood, and Lanigan’s reputation took a lasting beating. Even today, the first thing that comes up in a Google search of Sean Lanigan is a Web site called “Bad Bad Teacher.”

In this age of everything being stored forever, it is extremely disappointing that those who publish these sensationalist stories to grab headlines don’t have the ethical integrity to tie up loose ends and update their earlier proclamations when people are found not guilty. The internet garbage dump is littered with half-finished pronouncements of people’s arrests, floating about in the cyber wilderness, available to anyone and everyone for eternity. We see headlines every single day, on every news website: “Man arrested for robbery; Man accused of molesting child; Suspect arraigned in murder”.

The crime itself isn’t news – it’s the fact of arrest and allegation – a giant scarlet blob that’s shot out with the precision of a paintball gun, with no sense of duty to clean up the mess once the shot has been fired.

When do we ever see news organizations edit their original articles to reflect the outcome of the case. “Man arrested for raping 3 year old” never has an update attached to it stating “Man was ultimately acquitted, see here for details”. When do police departments put out press releases acknowledging that they arrested an innocent individual, one that was ultimately acquitted?

Why are we so quick to believe accusations and sully reputations based solely on them? Why do we permit shoddy police investigations that seem to have no regard for the truth? Think of the children, sure, but what about the rest of us?

Once in the equipment room, the girls decided, Lanigan laid the accuser on a stack of blue tumbling mats, began massaging her shoulders, then laid on top of her and told her he would “treat her like a queen,” while the other girl stood in the doorway. The accuser said that she tried to get up, but that Lanigan pushed her down and asked where she was going. The accuser said she had patrol duty, and Lanigan then allowed her to leave.

Several witnesses said the tumbling mats couldn’t even fit in the equipment room, but there is no indication in reports or trial testimony that Fairfax police ever checked.

Shoot first, there is no later.

 

The child abuse exception to [privilege]

If the law were a series of Hollywood blockbusters, undoubtedly the highest grossing series of movies of all time would be the ones that featured the exceptions carved out in long-standing law to accommodate the prosecution of alleged child abusers. You’d start with the original, “The Child Abuse Exception to Confrontation”, with which the writers judges hit a goldmine. Then I’d recommend moving to “The Child Abuse Exception to Prior Bad Acts”, and by now with a well-worn formula that keeps the entire plot intact but simply changes the name, a la The Hangover 2, The Child Abuse Exception to Privilege. There’s a rumor that there is a madlibs game in the works “The Child Abuse Exception to _____”. Ultimately, the plan is to release a director’s cut box set compendium under the title “The Child Abuse Exception to The Law”.

This most recent iteration, which can be viewed on a screen near you, is also known by its working title of State v. Mark R., in which the court goes to great lengths to explain why it is perfectly legal for a psychiatric counselor to not only disclose suspected child abuse to authorities – as a mandated reporter – but also to testify as to the private communications between the counselor and patient.

The relevant facts are thusly: Man allegedly fondles step-daughter. Step-daughter and mother confront man with assistance of priest in priest’s office. Man reluctantly admits said fondling, apologizes. Priest then informs mother that either she or he will have to report said abuse to law enforcement within 24 hours, as he is also a mandated reporter (gotcha!).

Two weeks later, suffering emotional stress from the step-daughter’s accusations and impending criminal prosecution, the man goes to seek counseling at a clinic. During a confidential intake interview, man again (yes, I know) admits said fondling. Counselor has to report said suspected child abuse.

Both priest and counselor testify at man’s trial about his confessions. Man is convicted and spends many years in jail; appeal follows.

In Connecticut, the privilege statute is 52-146s, which states:

(b) Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section, a professional counselor shall not disclose any such communications unless the person or the authorized representative of such person consents to waive the privilege and allow such disclosure. The person or the authorized representative of such person may withdraw any consent given under the provisions of this section at any time in writing addressed to the individual with whom or the office in which the original consent was filed. The withdrawal of consent shall not affect communications disclosed prior to notice of the withdrawal.

(c) Consent of the person shall not be required for the disclosure of such person’s communications:

(6) If child abuse, abuse of an elderly individual or abuse of an individual who is disabled or incompetent is known or in good faith suspected;

So it is pretty clear that the counselor is permitted to violate the privilege in order to report the suspected child abuse. The question then becomes, does the privilege continue to not exist once the disclosure has been made? The court says yes:

Once a client makes such an admission to a counselor, there is no indication, in either the text of the statute or its legislative history, that the counselor must obtain his consent  for any subsequent disclosures.

The defendant in the present case contends that Orr controls the result here. He argues that, as with the social worker statute, the professional counselor statute only  contemplates an initial disclosure of a client’s admissions of child abuse, and only to the extent required by law and necessary to secure the safety of the child, and therefore  the statute does not permit a counselor subsequently to testify against her client at trial. We disagree.

The court then goes into a somewhat limited analysis of why they disagree, mostly revolving around the fact that some other statutes mention that reporters shall be immune from criminal prosecution and that their names shall be disclosed to all necessary parties in said prosecution. Thus, it concludes:

Taken together, these provisions demonstrate a clear legislative intent that any mandatory report of child sexual abuse be channeled simultaneously into: (1) a child protection  investigation, spearheaded by the department, to prevent future abuse; and (2) a criminal investigation, spearheaded by local law enforcement, to address past abuse. Unlike  the imminent risk exception in § 52-146q (c) (2), the child abuse exception contained in § 52-146s (c) (6) is in part remedial. Accordingly, we discern no basis for reading into §  52-146s an implied distinction between disclosure of confidential communications for purposes of child protection and criminal prosecution.

The court also dismisses the argument that this decision will have a chilling effect on people seeking therapeutic treatment because any disclosure results in a criminal investigation, so the prospect of having his statement admitted through his counselor isn’t much of a deterrent. I suppose it’s been a long time since any of the justices practiced in a criminal court – if at all – but I’d like to take this opportunity to remind them that the number one factor leading to convictions is a confession.

In addition, I think there’s a significant distinction between this case and any other hypothetical case involving the disclosure to a psychiatric counselor: the fact that the suspected child abuse had already been disclosed a few weeks prior, by the priest.

The reason he went to the clinic and spoke to the counselor in the first place was the stress he experienced following the accusations made against him by the step-daughter. I understand that we need to protect children and that is the main goal, but a subsidiary one has to be the rehabilitation of people who commit these crimes and the first step in that process starts with therapy.

Imagine the therapy session that starts: “I must warn you that I can’t help you unless you talk freely and honestly about what you did and why, but if you do that, I will have to report you and testify against you in court”.

Yeah, no chilling effect, for sure.

Because restrict does not mean disseminate

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.

Not my town-itis

Connecticut, for some reason I have not yet uncovered, has thus far been immune to the sex offender hysteria that has gripped our nation for well over a decade now. Sure, we have mandatory minimums and calls to classify sex offenders on the same level as murderers, but the legislature, in an exemplary show of good sense, has resisted the urge to enact residency restrictions and has now twice rebuffed the implementation of the horrid Adam Walsh Act.

But, as I wrote back in December, the State hasn’t taken any positive steps either. There’s still nowhere for sex offenders who need treatment to get it. And if the residents of Montville, CT have their way, there won’t be anywhere for a while.

Montville, already home to two correctional facilities, was identified by the State as the prime location for a sex offender residential treatment facility, with an allocation of 24 beds. Frankly, 24 beds is nothing. Me and the 5 other attorneys in my office could come up with a list of 24 people before you finish reading this sentence, never mind the 100 other attorneys in the public defender system and their clients from just this year alone. But it’s a start and we have to start somewhere.

Yet, just like there are peas in a pod and two of a kind and how Garfunkel needed Simon, “sex offender treatment facility” seems incomplete without “not in my town”. And that’s exactly what the residents of Montville are arguing. Today, the town committee voted to seek an injunction to block the building of said treatment facility.

The state Department of Correction plans to create a 24-bed facility at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center for sex offenders about to be released from prison and those who have already been released. Creation of a residential sex offender program was part of a 2008 criminal justice reform law passed after the 2007 Cheshire home invasion.

Oh wait, this facility was to be created at the two jails that already exist in your little town? Perhaps they don’t realize these are the very jails that these sex offenders come from. It’s like moving them from one wing of the jail to another. But then again, it’s called hysteria for a reason…

In all the objections to constructing treatment facilities or the arguments in support of residency restrictions, I haven’t heard a single legitimate reason for excluding these from a particular locality or any justification that acknowledges the realities of banishing an entire group of people. Folks, “not in my town” isn’t a reason, it’s a position. You should explain, logically, why.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the town committee also voted to set a public hearing to consider an ordinance that would create a “sex offender free zone”. Montville isn’t the only town considering such an ordinance in CT. Greenwich, that bastion of purity and wholesome values and more BMWs than all the dealerships in the state combined, is also considering such an ordinance to ban its five (count ‘em – 5) sex offenders from places that are “frequented” by children.

Yet it is town officials in Greenwich who have been debating since February whether to approve an ordinance that would prohibit sex offenders from being near schools, parks, playgrounds and other places children congregate. The ordinance would not limit where sex offenders can live, as similar laws in other states do, but it would impose a $100 fine on a registered offender caught in the wrong place for a second time.

After unanimous approval by the Board of Selectmen, the measure moved on to the Representative Town Meeting, the city’s 230-member legislative body, where it failed twice, most recently on Sept. 21.

The quote speaks for itself. What needs addressing, however, is the mindless repetition of what should properly be considered pure fabrication by the Republican members of the state legislature:

“Look, there is obviously an extremely delicate balance between protecting the public and the constitutional rights and freedoms of individuals, whether they are convicted sexual predators or not,” [State Senator McKinney] said. “The difficulty comes with the fact that this type of crime has an extraordinarily high recidivism rate, which justifies us in government taking greater steps toward protecting the public than we would with other crimes.”

As is noted in the article linked to above, and as I’ve cried myself hoarse on this blog, that’s just not true. McKinney knows that too, because he’s been on the Judiciary Committee when these residency restrictions have been proposed and he’s been given the studies that show it’s not true. But of course, acknowledging the truth doesn’t further the fearmongering agenda and so here we are. Again.

Coincidentally, and that’s how these things usually go, today’s episode of the local NPR program “Where We Live” was devoted to sex offenders in Connecticut and these “loitering ordinances”.

Here’s my question, that I wish these proponents of the Scarlet Laws would answer: do you believe that we can completely eradicate sex crimes against children? If your answer is yes, then you’re either a liar or you don’t understand anything about how crimes are committed and why. If you answer no, then I have a follow up question: What is the most effective use of resources? Police loitering around parks and schools and enforcing these possibly unconstitutional ordinances or creating facilities for offenders to reintegrate into society, in a productive manner, so as to prevent future occurrences?

The answer is clear. The only question that remains is whether you want to be honest with yourselves or lie to everyone in order to win a vote.

The obscenity of risk of injury

Connecticut General Statute 53-21 states, in relevant part:

a) Any person who (1) wilfully or unlawfully causes or permits any child under the age of sixteen years to be placed in such a situation that the life or limb of such child is endangered, the health of such child is likely to be injured or the morals of such child are likely to be impaired, or does any act likely to impair the health or morals of any such child, or (2) has contact with the intimate parts, as defined in section 53a-65, of a child under the age of sixteen years or subjects a child under sixteen years of age to contact with the intimate parts of such person, in a sexual and indecent manner likely to impair the health or morals of such child

is guilty of “Risk of Injury to a Minor”. A conviction under subsection (1) is a Class C felony carrying a maximum prison term of 10 years and a conviction under subsection (2) is a Class B felony, carrying a maximum prison term of 20 years.

The motivation behind the enacting of this statute is noble:

The general purpose of § 53-21 is to protect the physical and psychological well-being of children from the potentially harmful conduct of adults.

State v. Payne, 240 Conn. 766. Yet the statute is so poorly worded and generally vague, that it has required years upon years of judicial interpretation and gloss to enable it to pass Constitutional muster:

We then proceeded to review the general features of § 53-21, noting that, “on its face, § 53-21 fails to articulate a definite standard for determining whether the conduct of [Schriver was] permitted or prohibited. ‘Any act’ may violate the statute so long as it is ‘likely to impair’ a minor’s health or morals. Standing alone, the phrase ‘any act’ provides no guidance to potential violators, police officers or juries, particularly because specific intent is not an element of the offense as charged in this case. . . . Nor is the focus of the statute measurably narrowed by the phrase ‘likely to impair.’ In its ordinary meaning, this phrase would seem to authorize police officers and jurors to determine culpability subjectively, on an ad hoc basis. Rather than providing objective certainty, this phrase compounds the vagueness of the statute because it invites jurors to base criminal liability on their own moral [predilections] and personal predictions of likely harm.” (Citations omitted.) Id., 461-62. After observing that other jurisdictions had deemed similar statutes unconstitutional, we concluded that, “in like fashion, § 53-21 fails to manifest minimal guidelines by which innocent acts can be objectively and foreseeably distinguished from conduct that violates the statute. . . . [Consequently], the constitutionality of § 53-21 depends upon a determination of the extent to which prior decisions of this court have supplied sufficient guidelines to save the statute from its facial invalidity.” (Citation omitted.) Id., 462.

Although the risk of injury statute was amended in 1995 to forbid expressly the sexual and indecent touching of intimate parts, the more general statutory language that proscribes an “act likely to impair the health or morals of . . . [a] child,” in subdivision (1) of § 53-21, has remained unchanged since this court’s decision in Schriver. Compare General Statutes § 53-21 (a) (1) with General Statutes (Rev. to 1987) § 53-21. The passage of time alone has not cured the facial vagueness of § 53-21 (1), nor has it altered the need to adhere to constitutional principles of due process of law in the application and enforcement of that statute. Cf. State v. Schriver, supra, 207 Conn. 459-61. Thus, the constitutionality of § 53-21 (1), as that statute is applied in any given case, continues to depend predominantly “upon a determination of the extent to which prior decisions of this court have supplied sufficient guidelines to save the statute from its facial invalidity.” Id., 462. In order to render § 53-21 (1) constitutionally viable, the decisions of this court must state with reasonable particularity the conduct that is proscribed by that statute.

State v. Robert H. The extent to which the Connecticut Supreme Court has gone to save an admittedly infirm statute is staggering. A statute that, upon fair reading, gives notice that a very limited set of actions are proscribed, has been judicially expanded to cover every perceived slight against a minor that a prosecutor with an infertile imagination can be counted upon to summon.

But that’s not my particular peeve with this statute and its judicially emboldened meaning. My grudge lies with the (lack of) meaning of the all-too-important phrase “likely to impair”.

Where were you on April 17, 1966?

Ask anyone that question and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy (and you might get some interesting responses from those that weren’t born yet). But try it. If you were alive then, think back. Think back to that April day or any other April day that year or the next year or in fact, any day between 1966 and 1972 and tell me where you were specifically between the general periods of any time of day or night.

You can’t. It’s impossible. 44 years have passed since 1966 and 38 since 1972. Yet, for “G.R.H.” of Louisiana it is this lack of photographic memory and the inability to have the foresight to note and document his whereabouts on all those days in those 6 years decades ago that has landed him in jail for the rest of his life.

In 2006, GRH [opinion here] was accused of sexually assaulting a minor, as you may have guessed, between 1966 and 1972. The complainant, 44 at the time of the accusations, had an alleged clear memory of the assaults perpetrated by the defendant, some 40 years ago.

There was no corroboration, no contemporaneous disclosure, no other instances of sexual abuse by this defendant, nothing. Just the say-so of a 44 year old woman, almost an entire lifetime after it allegedly occurred.1

Imagine, as Justice Douglas did, dissenting in United States v. Marion, that the 44 year delay occurred after GRH was arrested and not before. Certainly, none would argue that his right to a speedy trial was not violated. And the concerns with such a delay are certainly mitigated after the institution of a criminal prosecution: you know there is an action pending, so you hire an investigator, document your memories, speak to witnesses and firm up their recollections. When someone is not prosecuted and doesn’t sense one coming (having done nothing wrong), there is no reason why anyone would keep track of whatever alibis they might have had or whatever witnesses may have had to offer.

Justice Douglas, quoting Baron Alderson in 1844: