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Sex offender’s case may affect fate of Web registry

SHARE Sex offender’s case may affect fate of Web registry

A convicted sex offender says the Utah Sex Offender Registry violates his due process rights and if the Utah Supreme Court agrees with him, the state's highest court could strike down the policies governing the registry as unconstitutional.

Supreme Court justices heard arguments Wednesday in a key case that could hold sway over the fate of a registry that the public can use to access information, such as names and addresses, of thousands of convicted sex offenders over the Internet.

The case involves Steven Arthur Briggs, who was convicted of sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl in 1986 and sentenced to serve 15 years in prison. Before being released from prison in 2002, Briggs was told by prison staff that he had to fill out paperwork to register as a sex offender. Despite being told that it was the law, Briggs refused to sign the paperwork, which included telling prison officials where he would be living.

"You'll have to file charges against me, if you can find me," Briggs was quoted in court documents as telling prison officials.

Briggs was later charged with failing to register as a sex offender between 2003 and 2005. The court sentenced Briggs to two consecutive years in jail with all but 61 days credit for time served. Briggs appealed and argues that the Utah Sex Offender Registry stigmatizes all sex offenders as sexual predators, even those who have no history of repeat offenses. People on the registry are then subjected to public ridicule and humiliation, even after they have fully served their sentence and fulfilled their debt to society.

During oral arguments, Briggs' attorney, Lori Seppi, told justices the sex offender registry lumps all sex offenders in the same category and implies that they are all predators. This includes a 17-year-old male convicted of having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend as well as others with no history of repeat abuse. This information is then published on the Internet without giving the person a chance to argue before a judge that they are not a danger to the community.

Seppi said this violates the Constitution's guaranteed right to due process, adding if these people are going to be held out for public shame, they have a right to challenge it in court and prove that they are not a danger.

Justice Michael Wilkins asked if it's true that the sex offender is a predator, shouldn't he or she be on the registry?

Seppi said she was not arguing that everyone should be taken off and said some people should be on the registry as dangerous, but she argued Utah's laws do not make a distinction.

Chief Justice Christine Durham said she was troubled by this. She noted that children who send cell phone pictures of themselves nude to each other or children charged with acts of lewdness could wind up on the registry alongside adult rapists and violent sex offenders.

Durham suggested that the implication of being on the registry could be far more egregious than the original offense.

Assistant Utah Attorney general Laura Dupaix said all the state does is publish truthful information about sex offenders on the registry, including the crime of which they were convicted. The stigma doesn't come from the state but rather from what the public decides to do with the information, she said.

Dupaix said she would not trust a registered sex offender to be alone with her children, based on their past conduct. The registry gives the community the ability to use the information to make those choices.

Justice Matthew Durrant said he doubted the framers of the Constitution could have anticipated something like the sex offender registry or Internet publication.

Dupaix said the registry is not much different than word circulated about the abuse of a child among colonial townsfolk or of the public humiliation from time spent in the town stockade.

The justices will consider the arguments and issue a written opinion in the coming months.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com