Supreme Court Declines To Hear Louisiana’s Defense of a Law That Stamped ‘SEX OFFENDER’ on Driver’s Licenses
The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear Louisiana’s appeal of a decision against its 2006 law requiring that people on the state’s sex offender registry carry IDs or driver’s licenses that say “SEX OFFENDER” in orange capital letters. A year ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that the requirement amounted to compelled speech and could not be justified by the state’s legitimate interest in protecting public safety. In addition to raising First Amendment issues, Louisiana’s now-moribund law illustrates the longstanding tendency to impose additional punishment on people convicted of sex offenses in the guise of regulation.
The registries themselves, which require sex offenders to regularly report their addresses to local law enforcement agencies so that information can be made publicly available in online databases that also include their names, photographs, and physical descriptions, are primarily punitive, exposing registrants to ostracism, harassment, and violence while impeding their rehabilitation by making it difficult to find employment and housing. There is little evidence that the sort of public notification practiced by every state delivers benefits that outweigh those costs. Louisiana’s experiment in ritual humiliation, which branded registrants with orange letters they had to display in every transaction that required producing a government-issued ID, compounded those costs without offering any plausible benefits.
One problem with sex offender registries is that they cover a wide range of crimes, including many that do not involve violence, force, or physical contact. While people tend to imagine rapists or child molesters when they hear the term sex offender, the reality can be quite different, in ways that are important in assessing the danger that a person might pose to the general public or to people in particular age groups.
In Louisiana, for example, mandatory registration applies not only to crimes like rape and sexual assault but also to nonviolent offenses, such as voyeurism, possession of child pornography, consensual sex between adults who are closely related, sex between high school teachers and students (even when the student has reached the age of consent), and employment of a minor in “any practice, exhibition, or place, dangerous or injurious to the life, limbs, health, or morals of the minor.” Robert Suttle, who posted the picture of his driver’s license shown above, was forced to register because he was convicted of intentionally exposing someone to HIV, which resulted in a six-month prison sentence. After a bad breakup, he says, his former partner told the police he had not been informed of Suttle’s HIV status.
The second line of each record in the state’s registry shows the offender’s “tier,” which corresponds to various crimes classified by severity, ranging from Tier 1 (least serious, requiring registration for 15 years) to Tier 3 (most serious, requiring lifetime registration). Further down in the record, you can see the statute under which the registrant was convicted (e.g., “carnal knowledge of a juvenile”), which still omits potentially important details.
The driver’s license warning required by Louisiana’s law did not provide even that much information, meaning that anyone who saw it was invited to assume the worst. T
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