Sex offenders are an unsympathetic lot, and deservedly so. But if the government is allowed to trample and shred the constitutional rights of even the tiniest, most shunned segment of the population, how long before authorities decide to take away yours?
U.S. District Judge James Mahan took the state of Nevada off that slippery slope Wednesday when he prevented the retroactive application of a law that would have reclassified more than 2,000 registered sex offenders.
The statute, approved last year to meet the standards of the federal Adam Walsh Act, aimed to reclassify sex offenders based on the crimes they've committed, rather than their perceived risk of re-offending.
As a result, hundreds of Tier 1 offenders who've completed prison terms, stayed out of trouble for years and been considered no threat to public safety suddenly would have been labeled Tier 3 offenders. Their photos and personal information would have been posted on the state's sex offender Web site, they would've had to check in with authorities every 90 days, and a few would have had to wear GPS monitoring devices. Many feared losing their livelihoods and their rebuilt reputations.
Judge Mahan correctly ruled that applying the law retroactively violated the Constitution's due process and double jeopardy protections. A decision on whether the law can be constitutionally applied to future convictions is pending in state court.
"We know that it's a brave thing to do to make a decision that affirms the rights of sex offenders," said ACLU of Nevada staff attorney Maggie McLetchie, whose organization brought the challenge to federal court on behalf of several plantiffs.
"It's about the limits on the power of government."
Amen. Aside from the constitutional concerns, there were legitimate public safety issues as well. How could the law-abiding public be expected to measure the risks to themselves and their families if, overnight, the number of Tier 3 sex offenders in Nevada grew from about 160 to more than 2,500? Would their children really be in danger if one day their neighborhood was deemed free of dangerous molesters and rapists, but the next day the state said there were two on the same street?
The ACLU and the federal court deserve a lot of credit for protecting not just the rights of sex offenders, but of all citizens.