Four years ago, Juan Garcia did something stupid: He groped a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a friend.
The 30-something Texan was jailed for six months, given five years probation and required to post a large sign in front of his house that reads: "DANGER: REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER LIVES HERE."
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Garcia (not his real name) says he has gotten used to people driving by his house howling obscenities. He has also grown accustomed to neighborhood kids stealing his sign and planting it on other people's lawns as a joke.
What really bugs him, he says, is his permanent inclusion in the Texas' online sex offender registry, where anyone in the world can download his name, mug shot, what he was convicted of, and home address.
Instead of getting a fresh start after leaving jail, the site has started to haunt him. Recently a co-worker at the construction company where he works sidled up to him to ask about his "dirty little secret" after seeing his name on the website.
"I was shocked, I was embarrassed and wanted to quit my job," said Garcia. "Now every time I see two people talking at work I wonder if they're talking about me. I'm just waiting to see what happens when the supervisor finds out."
Tough beans, you may say; he screwed up. But is it fair for sex offenders to be branded with virtual scarlet letters -– often for life -- after they've served their jail time?
This issue is at the crux of a flurry of lawsuits charging that online sex offender registries are unfair and even unconstitutional.
The Internet sex offender databases were created following the passage of Megan's Law, which requires states to alert neighbors when a violent sex offender moves into their community. The law is named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a twice-convicted child molester who moved into a house across the street from the Kanka family without their knowledge.
Today, 32 states, as well as dozens of local governments have posted the mandated registries on the Internet so parents and schools can check for sex offenders in their midst and protect their children accordingly.
The recent court challenges argue that the online lists violate three constitutional rights: the right to privacy, the right to due process and the right not to be punished after (Ex Post Facto) completing a sentence for a crime.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two challenges brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against online sex offender registries in Alaska (arguing unfair punishment) and Connecticut (arguing due process) later this year.
"People have been run out of town because of these registries," said Ed Barocas, Legal Director of New Jersey ACLU, who successfully argued that disclosure of offenders' addresses online violated their privacy rights. The state's online registry now divulges offenders by county, not by street address.
"Just here in New Jersey, individuals have lost their jobs, people have come to their homes to beat them up and harass them," he said. "Our concern is not that this information is being disclosed but rather the scope of the disclosure. It is the worldwide access that is constitutionally suspect."
And then there are the cases where innocent people are attacked because the online registry information is incorrect. Sex offenders are required by law to notify the police when they move, but sometimes fail to do so, with disastrous consequences. An address error in the Texas Internet database caused a gang of gung-ho moralizers to attack a retarded Dallas man who happened to live at a home previously occupied by a sex offender who didn't bother to update his record.
Activists on both sides of the issue hope the High Court's rulings on the matter will clear up a lot of confusion.
"The sites are needed, they provide information that is public record to begin with," said Maureen Kanka, Megan Kanka's mother and the co-founder of the Megan Nicole Kanka Foundation. "The rights of children should always take precedence over the rights of offenders."
And in cases where the offenders are children themselves, Kanka believes they also should be included in the virtual lineup. Take Chevy Lee Driggars, a 15-year-old who was 13 when he was convicted of indecent sexual contact with an 11-year-old girl.
Some people might argue that children would better benefit from counseling rather than public humiliation, but the state of Texas is no softie.
"If you commit a sex crime in Texas, you're considered an adult," said Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Some 2,000 of the state's 35,000 sex offenders are juveniles, she said.
For Garcia, he hopes his record will be taken off-line altogether.
"I am not a dangerous man. I made a stupid mistake, and I've paid for it," he said.
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More stories written by Julia Scheeres