Sex offender ruling could mean less information for police

Updated: Mar. 14, 2019 at 11:14 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) -A federal court ruling could strike down parts of Alabama’s sex offender law. A recent federal ruling says convicted sex offenders may not have to give internet provider information, instant messages or email addresses to law enforcement. U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins calls it “unconstitutional” under the First Amendment. Current state law says sex offenders must let law enforcement know of any and all internet service providers they use.

“If a person went into McDonalds and the court used the word McDonalds and they wanted to get on the internet, they had to report that they were changing their site. They are using a different site. The court ruled that that’s just overbroad. It chills free speech and a person has a right to use a computer,” Roger Appell, a Birmingham attorney familiar with constitutional law said.

The ruling stems from a 2015 case that says the state’s sex offender laws are too broad. In his ruling, Judge Watkins didn’t hold back writing the law is “the most comprehensive and debilitating sex offender scheme in the nation saying no other state’s system comes close.

Appell, who has handled sex offender cases in the past, says current law is very strict.

“He makes that distinction through here how overbroad it is and how it’s not narrowed to each individual’s situation.”

Right now, sex offenders also have to label themselves as such on their driver’s license. Judge Watkins ruled that also violates the First Amendment saying "the branded-ID requirement compels speech.”

“What they said is putting an initial on the driver’s license like ‘C’ in small place would be sufficient to get the point across to whoever was looking at it, mostly law enforcement, and it wouldn’t be offensive violating the First Amendment,” Appell said.

Most people we spoke with feel the state’s sex offender laws are in place for a reason and changing them could hurt more than help.

“Without that information, you won’t know who the sex offenders are. Then there are kids in the area. I mean schools are around and you know that’s protection of your children,” Flora McShan, who lives in Tuscaloosa said.

In a statement, Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office tells us a post-judgement motion has been filed in the case.

“The State has not yet appealed but has filed a post-judgment motion that is awaiting a ruling. No appeal can be filed until there is a ruling on the State’s post-judgment motion. The State will evaluate whether an appeal is appropriate after the Court has ruled on its post-judgment motion,” Mike Lewis, spokesperson for Attorney General Steve Marshall said.

We reached out to a number of law enforcement agencies about the ruling. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office did get back with us. In a statement, Captain David Agee said “Until there is a final ruling on the appeal, we will continue following the laws currently in place for the State of Alabama. The sheriff’s office is committed to the oversight of every sex offender in the county as well as the protection and safety of all residents and visitors.”

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