New Jersey Bill Would Force Sex Offenders to Disclose Their Status on Social Networking Sites

Article provided by New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer - Anthony N. Palumbo

Sex offenders in New Jersey are already subject to a host of registration and reporting requirements under Megan's Law, which makes their personal information and details from their criminal records available to neighbors, schools, law enforcement agencies, and the general public. Legislation being proposed in the state Senate, however, would extend the scope of Megan's Law and require sex offenders to disclose their status on social networking sites.

Senate Bill No. 2142, which was introduced in July by Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman, is based on a similar law recently enacted in Louisiana. "In many ways, sex offenders can use the internet as a venue and a means to plot and begin to carry out their crimes against vulnerable and unsuspecting victims," Bateman explained. "This legislation supplements Megan's Law to assist law enforcement agencies in stepping up their increasingly successful efforts targeting and fighting Internet sex crimes."

Although the bill's intentions are admirable, critics have questioned whether the legislation would actually enhance existing sex offender restrictions or simply create redundant regulations. They've also raised concerns about the ability to enforce the social networking provisions and possible constitutional problems.

Existing sex offender restrictions in New Jersey

New Jersey's Megan's Law statute requires offenders who've been convicted of sodomy, rape, child pornography, child molestation, sexual battery, and other sex crimes to provide information to the police and the local community about what they look like, where they live, and the nature of their past crimes. Although Megan's Law applies to nearly all sex crime convictions, the statute provides different registration and community notification requirements depending on the circumstances, nature, and severity of each offense, with registration information for the highest risk offenders being publicly available on the internet. Sex offenders must remain on the Megan's Law registry for at least 15 years, but many offenders must remain registered for life.

Megan's Law already requires registered offenders to report to law enforcement whether they have access to a computer or any other device with internet capability, as well as any changes in their ability to access the internet. Moreover, under legislation passed in 2007, sex offenders convicted for internet sex crimes are subject to post-release conditions that prohibit them from using the internet without prior court approval, except in connection with their employment and under the supervision of their probation or parole officer. The same internet restrictions may also be imposed on sex offenders who are subject to lifetime parole supervision, which includes anyone convicted for aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, kidnapping, endangering the welfare of a child, or luring. Violations of any of these additional internet restrictions are classified as fourth degree offenses and are punishable by up to 18 months in prison.

Proposed social networking restrictions

Under the proposed legislation, convicted sex offenders would be required to provide law enforcement with a list of their email addresses, screen names, and other identities used for web-based chats, instant messaging, and social networking websites, as well as a list of social networking sites that they already belong to. Any sex offenders permitted to use social networking sites would also be required to include in their profiles an indication of their sex offender status, as well as notice of the crimes for which they were convicted, the jurisdiction of conviction, a description of their physical characteristics, their residential address, and a link to their profile on the state's internet sex offender registry. Violations of these requirements would be classified as fourth degree crimes punishable by up to 18 months in prison.

The legislation defines "social networking website" as "an Internet-based service that allows individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system created by the service, create a list of other users with whom they share a connection within the system, and view and navigate their lists of connections and those made by others within the system." The definition specifically excludes e-commerce sites, news websites, and sites operated by government entities.

Criticism of the bill: redundancy, enforcement, constitutionality

Preventing convicted sex offenders from using social networking sites to commit new offenses is an admirable goal, but critics of the bill say that it won't actually do much. To begin with, the social networking provisions would be fairly redundant considering the internet access restrictions already imposed on sex offenders in New Jersey, not to mention the policies established by Facebook, Match.com and other social network sites prohibiting sex offenders from using their services.

Additionally, critics of the bill say that sex offender registration requirements, while reassuring to the public, haven't been effective in deterring first time sex offenses or preventing recidivism. This is especially true in the context of social media networks, where anonymous accounts and made-up personas are ubiquitous and frequently untraceable. The difficulties inherent in enforcing restrictions on sex offenders' social media accounts could easily make the law unworkable, opponents have argued, and efforts would be better spent by educating children about the dangers of internet predators.

Given the growing importance of social media networking in citizens' daily communications and interactions, the proposed law could also raise serious concerns about sex offenders' First Amendment free speech rights. Federal judges in a few states have already struck down social networking restrictions found to be too restrictive, and even though the New Jersey proposal would not apply to online shopping, news, or government websites, the law in this area has not yet become clear.

Conclusion

Regardless of whether the proposed social networking restrictions are passed, they demonstrate just how far-reaching the legal consequences for sex crimes in New Jersey can be. Restrictions on internet use and social media networking are just a few of the provisions that can impact sex offenders well after they've served out their sentences, and legislators in New Jersey will likely continue to suggest expanded restrictions as social networking and new media formats create new opportunities for sexual predators.