April 29, 1998
Megan's Law is in effect but now state prosecutors must decide who should be informed when a sex offender moves into the community and how far the notification bounderies should be from the offender's home. Betty Ann Bowser has the Megan's Law update.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Anyone who wants to can turn on a computer, get on the Internet, and look up the name, address, and picture of every convicted sex offender in Alaska and Florida. In California, residents can go into any police station and watch a CD-rom that identifies more than 64,000 convicted sex offenders.
SPOKESPERSON: Okay. Next step now, we've got the map and now we have to figure out what the boundaries are going to be.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in New Jersey, state prosecutors like Maureen O'Brien, are required to decide who to notify when a sex offender is living in the community.
MAUREEN O'BRIEN, New Jersey State Prosecutor: This is more of a residential neighborhood. It's very close to a shopping center. There are a lot of--there's a movie theater not too far. There's grocery stores; there's corner candy stores. You really don't have to go too much further outside of this neighborhood to basically conduct your daily life.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: O'Brien must decide how far to draw the notification boundaries from the offender's home, and then she submits a plan to the superior court for approval. All this is happening because New Jersey like 46 other states now has a Megan's Law. The laws are named in memory of seven year old Megan Kanka, who was abducted from her home outside Trenton, New Jersey in 1994, then raped and murdered by Jesse Timmendequeas , a twice-convicted sex offender who lived right across the street. Although he had a lengthy rap sheet, no one, including the police, knew Timmendequeas was a child molester.
MAUREEN O'BRIEN: Before Megan's Law, any sex offender that moved into Westfield, Westfield PD didn't know about it. They didn't know sex offenders lived here. There was no requirement for them to know.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Assistant Prosecutor O'Brien spends her days and nights explaining Megan's Law to people in Westfield and throughout Union County, where she heads the notification program.
MAUREEN O'BRIEN: Failure to register is a fourth degree crime. An individual can go to prison for up to 18 months. And registration is an ongoing responsibility.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Jersey requires all convicted sex offenders to register with local police departments, no matter where they live, every time they move, even if it's within the same apartment building, for life. New Jersey is also the only state that requires sex offenders who were convicted prior to passage of the law to register. And although that provision has been tested in court, it has withstood all legal challenges. O'Brien says there are many ways she can draw notification boundaries, but the law does give her some general guidelines. Tier one offenders, considered least likely to re-offend, are to be made known only to law enforcement. Tier two offenders, considered more likely to commit another crime, are to be made known to schools, daycare centers, and most civic organizations in their neighborhood. But with Tier three offenders, those with the highest probability of re-offending, an entire neighborhood or city or county can be notified. O'Brien told these parents she follows one guiding principle.
MAUREEN O'BRIEN: Regardless of which tier it is, when notification is done, it's limited to those likely to encounter the individual, so despite what you've seen in the newspaper, it is not supposed to be released to the press, not supposed to be on television or in the newspaper or posted on bulletin boards anywhere, because that goes beyond--that goes beyond the statute. The statute requires that the notification be limited to those likely to encounter.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it doesn't always work out that way. In 1993, a convicted child molester named Ronald Terpak moved into this house in Rahway, New Jersey, a single family residential community. Terpak, who returned home to care for his invalid mother, is a Tier three offender who was convicted before Megan's Law existed. Because police officials believe he is very likely to commit another crime, the immediate neighborhood was quickly notified. However, it didn't stop there. Someone in the neighborhood gave a flier like this to the East Brunswick Home News Tribune, and Editor Dick Hughes decided that was a story. For days, Terpak's picture, criminal and sexual histories, were all over the front page. Under Megan's Law whoever gave the flier to the newspaper was in violation of the law and could, in theory, be prosecuted. That was a prospect Hughes found absurd.
DICK HUGHES, Editor, Home News Tribune: I think it's an abuse of public power to kind of--you know, you're sitting--you finish dinner, you're sitting, watching television, and some cop or some prosecutor knocks on your door, hands you a flier, suddenly you are subject to a court order not to reveal this to someone across the street or to your mother-in-law or to the ladies at the church social? I don't think you can do that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Attorney General Peter Verniero says the law can do that. He wrote Hughes a letter criticizing the coverage.
PETER VERNIERO, New Jersey Attorney General: I was not pleased at all that the newspaper took it upon itself to publish that information. I think that that was counter to the spirit of the law, and it happens on a repetitive basis it could undermine the law itself. But I can't deny the newspaper the right to do that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ed Martone is executive director of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU fought and lost a constitutional challenge to the law in court.
ED MARTONE, American Civil Liberties Union: He's quite right in suggesting that it undercuts the whole purpose of the law, but that's the way the law was written, unfortunately. And we argued unsuccessfully in court that they couldn't do this kind of narrowly tailored notification. They couldn't tell some people and not others without expecting people to talk to one another about it, without expecting the news media to do stories about it. They assured the court to do it, and now they're seeing it crumbling in front of them.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Attorney Louis Kady has never represented Terpak on any criminal matter but agreed to take him on now because he thinks Terpak has been made a victim.
LOUIS KADY, Attorney: He's right to violate it to the extent that there is--according to the law there is supposed to be no disclosure made, other than the people that it was intended to be dispersed to. This privacy is more than anything. I mean, Mr. Terpak is not a public person. Mr. Terpak is an individual who lives with his mother in a quiet section of--under the local communities in the area here--his mother is bedridden. She's, I believe, in her 70's or so.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Andy Grygo lives near Terpak. He never received notice and thinks the boundaries weren't drawn broadly enough. His young nephew visits frequently, so Grygo is glad somebody gave the flier to the newspaper.
ANDY GRYGO, Neighbor: I looked at this as a local, a real local phenomena. I mean, this man had moved into this neighborhood, and someone felt that one or two blocks was okay to notify, and what I learned in the papers was that whoever the soul was that gave that notification over to the newspaper could be prosecuted. And that probably would have angered me even more.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Arthur Goldsworthy also thinks there are problems with Megan's Law. Someone recently distributed a flier to his neighbors stating the 63-year-old high school guidance counselor was a convicted sex offender. It was a hoax.
ARTHUR GOLDSWORTHY, High School Guidance Counselor: It's an example of how the law can be, you know, violated from its original intentions. And it's an example of some of the things that have to be modified in terms of the law and maybe a little more education done with it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Attorney General Verniero is investigating the incident.
PETER VERNIERO: I was appalled that someone would use Megan's Law as a vehicle or weapon to get back at somebody else. That's appalling. And that undermines the integrity of the law enforcement community. And it won't be tolerated in this state.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: ACLU Executive Director Martone says what happened to Goldsworthy is an example of how abuses can take place. He cited another.
ED MARTONE: We've had an incident where a man was assaulted by two other men because they thought he was a sex offender because he was in the same house as the prosecutor told him another sex offender was living.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Martone says in states where Megan's Laws have been in effect for a few years, they haven't worked.
ED MARTONE: What you've seen in other states, for example, that have this is that half or more of the sex offenders don't register, and many who do register at park benches and vacant lots and abandoned buildings because they're not crazy. They know what happens to them when their neighbors know about them.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Again, Attorney General Verniero.
PETER VERNIERO: We think we have a good statute. We think the way we wrote it enabled us to win at every court level. Megan's Law is information. It's about providing families and parents with an additional tool so they can take reasonable steps to protect their children. So from that perspective, I think it's a very good law, and I applaud it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Megan's Law is still being tested. Two other states have constitutional challenges pending.