No classification of criminal attracts less public sympathy and more attention from authorities than sex offenders. Such evils run so afoul of societal norms that punishments extend far beyond prison terms, to post-incarceration registration and, for those deemed most likely to re-offend, the posting of their identities, residences and locations of employment.
But how far can lawmakers and authorities go? Can they enact new punishments and apply them retroactively to offenders who have already served their sentences? Can they set aside the constitutional rights of a small minority based on the revulsions and fears of the majority?
These important questions will play out in Las Vegas courtrooms in the coming months after state and federal district judges blocked Nevada's new sex offender law from taking effect. AB579, known as the Adam Walsh Act, would have reclassified sex offenders based on the nature of their offense as opposed to their perceived risk of re-offending.
Doing so would have boosted the number of Tier 3 sex offenders in Nevada from about 165 to a little more than 2,500, requiring them to register with authorities every 90 days and submit to fingerprinting. Some of the reclassified would have to wear GPS monitoring devices, and all would have their photos and personal information posted on the state's sex offender Web site.
A handful of affected offenders, represented by attorneys Richard Schonfeld, Robert Langford and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, argued that the law is overly restrictive and disciplines people anew for crimes already paid for.
On June 27, District Judge David Wall granted a preliminary injunction against the law's enforcement in Clark County and scheduled arguments on its constitutionality for Aug. 29. Then, on Monday, U.S. District Judge James Mahan issued an injunction statewide, scheduling arguments on the constitutionality of the law for Aug. 26. Both judges held that if thousands of people had their identities posted, only to have the law later determined unconstitutional, they would lose their due process rights and be unable to regain their anonymity and whatever lawful reputations they might have spent years building.
There are also legitimate public policy questions to be answered. Police and prosecutors have made great efforts to identify those felons who pose a legitimate threat to the community at large. But due to legislative fiat, the state is now suddenly swarming with 2,500 rapists and molesters at the same risk of re-offending?
These issues deserve rigorous debate next month. Thus far, the judiciary has met its principal responsibility in protecting the rights of all citizens -- even sex offenders.