By Professor Ira Ellman . . .
When Animus Matters and Sex Offense Underreporting Does Not: The Sex Offender Registry Regime
In Romer v. Evans the Court drew a constitutional distinction between civil laws enacted for a broad public purpose that justifies “the incidental disadvantages they impose on certain persons,” and laws that have “the peculiar property of imposing a broad and undifferentiated disability on a single named group”. Laws of the second kind “raise the inevitable inference that the disadvantage imposed is born of animosity toward the class of persons affected.” The difficulty lies in deciding when the inference properly becomes a conclusion that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause. The more sweeping and unusual the burdens imposed on the targeted group, the more difficult it may be to discern a common policy explaining them other than the forbidden purpose of harming their targets. At some point the animus inference may be strong enough to require scrutiny of the laws’ purported rationale, including whether it has any actual basis in fact.
An astonishingly broad array of burdens are imposed today on anyone ever convicted of almost any sexual offense of any kind or seriousness, including but extending far beyond their simple inclusion in publicized websites listing “sex offenders.” No similar regime has ever been imposed on any other group of law-abiding former felons who have fully served the sentence for the crime they committed years earlier. This “registry regime” raises as strong an inference of animus as there was in any of the four cases in which the Court sustained such claims, and the claim that it is justified by the clearly valid purpose of reducing the incidence of sexual offending does not survive the scrutiny of scientific studies which find the registry ineffective and often counterproductive. Nor does the fact that many sexual offenses are never reported to law enforcement authorities cast any doubt on the validity of those studies or on the legal or policy analyses relying on them. Much of the registry regime must therefore fall under an Anti-Animus principle.
Keywords: sex offenders, sex offenses, collateral consequences, animus
The full paper may be accessed, without charge, here.
Comment by Philip . . . I don’t often use the adjective superb, but in this case, I find it altogether apropos. The paper is 38 pages long but well worth the full read! I especially love the leper analogy used on page 17 (see below).
The forced expulsion of lepers to separate colonies was once thought necessary to protect the public from a disfiguring disease that evoked fear and disgust, but today that explanation would fail given current knowledge about the disease’s transmission and its treatment with antibiotics.71 Today a policy of exiling lepers from civil society could only be explained by ‘irrational prejudice’—animus. Registrants are today’s lepers. The intuition that they threaten grave harm that the registry regime can prevent might have once been plausible, but must today yield to the facts established by studies conducted in recent decades. Part II capsules that work.