The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the state’s sex-offender registration law in a narrow 4-3 decision Tuesday, saying the statute does not violate the rights of people convicted of sex crimes before 1999, when the law was retroactively applied to include them.
The court found the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 1999 to be constitutional, upholding a lower court’s ruling.
Maine law requiring offenders to register on the Internet-based list is “non-punitive,” the majority ruled, and serves the legitimate governmental goal of protecting the public’s safety.
While lawyers for the 15 plaintiffs — each referred to in court documents only as John Doe — argued that registration is an unconstitutional punishment, the majority ruling cited the U.S. Supreme Court in dismissing the challenge.
“The Does argue that the registry’s availability on the Internet is punitive because of its stigmatizing effects. The Supreme Court found that ‘(t)he purpose and the principal effect of notification are to inform the public for its own safety, not to humiliate the offender. … The attendant humiliation is but a collateral consequence of a valid regulation.’ “
Justice Andrew Mead wrote the 39-page opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and Justices Jon D. Levy and Ellen Gorman.
The decision is the latest chapter in the decades-long public conversation about the utility of the registry.
It is unlikely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the only possible avenue for recourse, said Jim Mitchell, the attorney who argued on behalf of the John Does. Mitchell, nevertheless, called the ruling a disappointment.
“The majority simply downplayed the seriousness of what registration means,” Mitchell said. “That’s very disappointing.”
The John Does had petitioned to have their names removed from the registry, in part because they had already paid their debts to society.
In a dissenting opinion on Tuesday’s ruling, Justices Warren M. Silver, Donald Alexander and Joseph Jabar argued that the publication of personal information is a shaming technique they consider a continued punishment, even after offenders serve out the term of their court-mandated sentence.
Under the law, a sex offender is required to provide his or her photo, name, address and other detailed information to the state, which then publishes it in a online database where members of the public can easily find information, perhaps including the names of offenders who live near them.
Currently in Maine, 2,928 people are active registered offenders, according to the state. Officials who maintain the registry could not say Tuesday how many of those offenders were convicted before 1999 and could have been affected by the court’s decision.
To test whether the registry system is an unconstitutional punishment, the justices relied on a technical seven-point evaluation that is established in case law.
At one point in the opinion, the court’s majority likened the requirement that registrants report to police in person every five years to obtaining a driver’s license and said written notifications to authorities present a minimal burden.
The court decision is the latest development in the life of the controversial registry law, which has changed significantly since it was first put into effect in 1992.
An update to the law passed in 1999 included in the statute a wider variety of offenses, imposed harsher penalties and created two separate categories for convicts: sex offenders and sexually violent predators. Sex offenders were required to register for a decade, while sexually violent predators were required to register for life.
The 1999 revision also separated the registration process from sentencing, removed the possibility for waiving registration after five years if offenders met certain criteria for good behavior and removed the power previously held by sentencing judges to opt against requiring registration all together.
The publicly available Internet database was created in 2003. In 2005, the law was expanded again to apply to offenders convicted after 1982.
The Legislature created an exception in 2009.
That law allowed people sentenced for sexual crimes between Jan. 1, 1982 and June 30, 1992 to keep their names from appearing on the list if their conviction at the time would have allowed for their identities to be expunged from the registry after they completed their 10 years. The exception was later expanded to include convictions between 1982 and Sept. 18, 2009.
The John Does who took their suit to the state’s highest court had been convicted within the allowable window of time but did not qualify to be removed from the registry. Some had been convicted of multiple counts of sexual offenses, which the Legislature designated as a negating factor in granting the exception.
The split ruling Tuesday is not likely to end the long-running debate over the Maine sex-offender list.
While the majority of justices agreed that the purpose of the law is public safety, the dissenting justices diverged sharply and pointed to scholarly criticism of the registry system as an ineffective tool for deterrence.
Silver wrote in the dissent that the stigma associated with sex offenders’ information being published on the Internet demonstrates its punitive effects.
“The public does not have access to the pictures, home addresses and work places of those convicted of robbery, arson, embezzlement or any other crime,” he wrote.
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at