Sex offenders in Colorado still have to register with the state, but a federal judge has thrown the legality of the public list into doubt.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch in Denver ruled Thursday in a federal civil rights lawsuit that the law subjected three male sex offenders to “cruel and unusual punishment” and violated their due-process rights.
For now, the ruling applies only to the three men, but Colorado Springs legal observers say it could have sweeping effects in years to come.
“As a criminal defense lawyer not involved in that case, it is a hopeful sign that this registration act is either on the way out entirely, or at the very least subject to modification,” said Colorado Springs attorney Phil Dubois.
In a statement on Friday, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman defended the registry and said no changes were imminent.
“I am committed to having a robust sex offender registry in our state that protects the public,” the statement read. “My office is working with our clients to determine how best to proceed with this case.”
The list is maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and contains the names, ages, addresses and photos of people who have been convicted of certain sex crimes. While it’s meant to keep the public informed, critics have long charged that it leads to continued punishment for sex offenders after they have completed court-ordered sentences.
Dubois said the registration “ruins lives,” subjecting those on the list to severe consequences long after they complete their sentences.
“Life as they knew it ended,” Dubois said. “When they go looking for work, they are turned away. When they apply to rent an apartment, they are turned away. The consequences are severe, and in many cases, permanent.”
In ruling on a civil rights lawsuit, Matsch on Thursday agreed in spirit, saying that convicted sex offenders David Millard, Eugene Knight and Arturo Vega were subjected to “serious threats of retaliation, violence, ostracism, shaming, and other unfair and irrational treatment from the public, directly resulting from their status as registered sex offenders.”
The judge also concluded that the procedures for getting off the list were essentially arbitrary, depriving sex offenders of a reasonable means for demonstrating they are not a threat to the public.
Their attorney, Patricia Ruttenberg of Boulder, conceded there would be no immediate effect of Matsch’s ruling, even for the plaintiffs. But that could change if the case is appealed and higher courts agree.
“I view it as a first, but very significant victory,” Ruttenberg said. “There’s a lot of work left to be done.”
If the ruling is appealed by the Attorney General’s Office, it could be a year or more before the 10th Circuit Court renders an opinion. Once that happens, the case could be a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court, legal onlookers said. Only when the appeals process is exhausted will the fate of the registry be clear.
Sex offender registries have long been used to inform people about convicts in their midst, and the courts have consistently upheld its use, calling it a civil consequence of a conviction rather than a punitive measure. Match’s dissent could mark the beginning of a reversal in thinking and is likely to fuel additional challenges.
The federal judge could have issued an injunction barring the state from adding new names to the registry, but stopped short of that action, according to attorney Joshua Tolini of Colorado Springs. Tolini suggested the judge wanted to avoid “chaos” if his decision ends up getting reversed by a higher court. Setting aside the list and reinstating it later would roil efforts to keep a definitive list, he said.
“I definitely believe (critics) have a huge reason to be optimistic,” Tolini said. “It’s a really important first step for people pushing to have the entire system revamped.”
Ted McClintock, a former sex crimes prosecutor who now specializes in defending those accused of sex crimes, said he didn’t expect changes in El Paso County as a result.
“That would surprise me a lot if one (federal) district judge’s decision would do anything to our District Court,” he said. “If the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed it, I think (El Paso County District Court) would follow it.”
Matsch ruled that the three plaintiffs are entitled to recover attorney’s fees, which have yet to be decided.
But the ruling did not remove them from the registry, which is operated by the state, Ruttenberg said.
She said she intends to file petitions for removal in state court, acknowledging that there’s nothing about the ruling that means they will be automatically approved.
“If state court judges refuse to honor his declaration … I will have the ammunition to seek a permanent injunction” against the registry, she said.
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