Politics & Other Mistakes: Conforming to abnormality

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Let’s see if I can fill a whole column by making jokes about violent sex offenders.

Question: Why did the violent sex offender cross the road?

Answer: To get to the other side – where there was a park full of little kids he could ogle, follow, abduct and violate.

No laughs? This might be more difficult than I thought.

Which leaves me in much the same position as state government when it comes to dealing with rapists and child molesters. Developing comedy routines about creeps like that is about as easy as coming up with effective ways to keep the public safe from these monsters once they get out of prison.

Which is why they shouldn’t get out. Lock them up for life. End of problem.

I’m not kidding. Although, I’d be kidding myself if I thought there was any chance the weenies in the Legislature would approve mandatory sentences like that.

I can hear a heckler in the back of the room shouting out that Maine already has protection against weirdos on the loose. It has a sex-offender registry. Anyone who’s been convicted of a sex crime since 1982 has to have his or her photo, address and other information posted on the Web, where law enforcement and private citizens can access it. The profiles of the most dangerous freaks are updated every 90 days.

Yeah, I know all about that. But here’s the punch line. Maine’s registry is unconstitutional.

That’s not me trying to be funny. That’s the noted non-comedian Valerie Stanfill, who does her stand-up routine in state District Court (“All rise”), where she’s a judge with a grudge. On June 2, she did what District Court judges rarely do: She declared a law passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor to be in violation of the state and federal constitutions. The statute in question is the Maine Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 1999.

Stanfill threw out charges that a sex offender named Eric Letalien had failed to update his registration, because, she said, the law applies retroactively in ways that are overly punitive. That makes the registration act an “ex post facto” law, which is prohibited by the Constitution.

In 1996, when Letalien was 19, he was convicted of gross sexual assault for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. The act was consensual, but because of the victim’s age, it was classified as a “sexually violent offense.” He was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

Under the statute in effect at the time, Letalien wasn’t required to register as a sex offender. Even if he had been, he could have asked a judge for a waiver of the requirement after five years. But then, the Legislature changed the rules. The waiver provision was eliminated. And starting in 2003, Letalien was forced to register and to update his registration every 90 days. For the rest of his life. No probation. No parole.

In 2007, Letalien, now 32, missed one of those updates and was arrested. In court, he testified that since registering, he’d been fired from jobs, had personal relationships destroyed, been harassed by a neighbor, been stopped by police while visiting his daughter’s school and was afraid to go out in public. An assessment performed by a psychologist found Letalien presented the “lowest possible risk” of committing another sex crime. His lawyer argued the law he was accused of violating should be overturned.

Stanfill’s ruling in his favor will almost certainly be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, where it may get a cordial reception. In two previous decisions dealing with the sex offender registry, the high court has stopped short of overturning the act, mostly because those earlier cases didn’t specifically address the constitutional question. But in one of those decisions, the justices issued a not so thinly veiled warning that the retroactive provisions of the law might go too far:

“[T]he fact that a sex offender never has the ability to escape the registration requirements of the current [law], regardless of behavior, consequences or contributions following the conviction, strikes us as having the capability to be excessive and as diverging from the purpose of protecting the public.”

In a rare indication of intelligent life at the State House, the Legislature earlier this year passed a bill distinguishing between dangerous sex maniacs and clunkheads, who let their hormones do their thinking and got caught in a legal definition that didn’t apply to them. Under this legislation, many low-risk offenders convicted between 1982 and 1992 would no longer have had to register.

Because this idea made some sense, Gov. John Baldacci pocket vetoed it. The governor wants more studies.

Meanwhile, the Letalien case and at least six others are making their way through the legal system, which appears to be poised to do what the governor won’t: Change the rules to distinguish between sickos and more-or-less normal people who made mistakes.

That reform is so overdue, it’s not even funny.

Register your objections by e-mailing me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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