Sex Offenders in Washington, ACLU Sue to Hide Identities

The local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit in King County to prevent the names of low-level sex offenders from becoming public.

Many sex offenders are worried their lives would be ruined if their identities were publicized in the sex offender registry maintained by the State Patrol.

One of two low-level sex offenders being brought forward by the ACLU in a lawsuit aimed at stopping the state from releasing the names of 21,000 registered sex offenders residing in Washington State is a married father of two.

At issue is the release of personal information about “level one” offenders who are deemed the least likely to re-offend and have been determined to be of little or no risk to the community. “Level two” and “level three” offenders, who are thought more likely to commit additional sex crimes, are already broadcast on free, public websites maintained by state law enforcement.

A few weeks ago, a King County Superior judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocked the release of the sexual offender database until the case can be heard in full. This injunction is usually issued in all public records disclosure lawsuits, because there would be no point in bringing the lawsuit if the records were released before and during the trial.

The “level one” offenders, represented by the ACLU as well as private attorneys, believe that they should be entitled to live in the privacy afforded to them by the “level one” classification, which includes being left off of the sex offender sites.

Although they are still required to report those crimes to the schools they attend, they aren’t required to inform their community of those crimes. This “level one” label is determined by scoring well on a review conducted by law enforcement, and fulfilling the requirements asked of them.

The King County man, referred in the lawsuit as “John Doe B,” stated that he had complied with probation requirements, reported any violations of his treatment plan, and has avoided sanctions from his parole officer and counselor. Yet, he may lose his job, and even worse, be shunned in his community and by his family if his past sex crimes were released to the public.

In a December 5 statement to the court, John Doe B said, “knowing the public opinion about sex offenders, and the bias and hatred that many people have toward registered sex offenders, I’m worried about mental and physical abuse to my family and myself.”

In another statement, ACLU of Washington staff attorney Vanessa Hernandez affirmed their stance on the issue, saying, “being identified publicly as a sex offender puts individuals at risk of being harassed, assaulted, or losing jobs and housing. The government should follow the state’s sex offender registration law, which says that names of these individuals should not be released automatically to the general public.”

Assistant Attorney General Shelley Williams argues that the sex offenders’ complaint is moot, as the state has previously released information requested to other agencies, non-profit organizations, the general public, and the media.

Williams added that state law simply does not protect the sex offender database from public disclosure, and that court records provide any information that was intended to be hidden to the public by the court.

In court documents, Williams is quoted as saying that “the plaintiffs’ key concern is being identified as convicted sex offenders. The fact that a person has been convicted of a sex offense has long been accessible by the public. Not only is a sex offender’s conviction readily available… but the intimate details of an offender’s life are also potentially open to the public.”

Parents of the offenders argue that releasing the registry would shame offenders, and could even expose their victims.

The mother of a young man who was convicted of molesting three younger siblings commented in court documents. She said, “if publicizing level one sex offenders’ names and pictures prevented sexual abuse, protected victims or helped protect children in the community, I would continue to be an ardent supporter of public notification laws. However, as a mother who has experienced the other side of abuse, I only see the harmful effects and humiliation public notification causes families and most especially the victims of sexual abuse who are children.”

Although different research yields different results, it is estimated that 1-in-4 to 1-in-3 sexual assaults against children are committed by family members, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Another woman argued that releasing low-level offenders’ names is the equivalent to bullying. Her son was sexually assaulted by two of her young nieces. She added, “other people shouldn’t be able to have the power to influence the rest of the people’s lives. Yes, the offenders have done that with their choices, but they have been in court for that and are making their restitution and changes in their lives.”

We will continue to keep you up to date on any developments to this story. This lawsuit has not yet been set for trial.

For more information, contact a Gacovino Lake attorney at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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