Megan’s Law is a federal law that requires information about convicted sex offenders to be made available to the public. The law was enacted in response to the 1986 murder of seven-year old Megan Nicole Kanka, after having been lured into her neighbor’s house and raped. The neighbor had previously been convicted of sexual molestation of a child. Following the federal legislation, states passed similar laws, also colloquially referred to as “Megan’s” laws.” To explore this concept, consider the following Megan’s Law definition.
Definition of Megan’s Law
- A U.S. federal law requiring law enforcement agencies to make certain information about convicted sex offenders known to the public.
- Various state laws requiring the establishment of sex offender registries, and community notification of residents when a sex offender moves into the neighborhood.
1994 Federal legislation
History Behind Megan’s Law
On July 29, 1994, Jesse K. Timmendequas lured his neighbor’s little girl, Megan Kanka, into his house, where he raped her, killed her, then dumped her body in a nearby park. The following day, Timmendequas confessed his acts, and led police to the girl’s body. Investigators collected evidence, all of which pointed to Timmendequas quilt, including hair samples, blood stains, and a bite mark on Timmendequas’ hand, which matched Megan’s teeth.
A jury found Timmendequas guilty of kidnapping, four counts of aggravated sexual assault, and two counts of murder, and sentenced to death. On appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the death sentence, and Timmendequas was held on death row until 2007, when the state abolished the death penalty. Timmendequas now serves a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole
This high profile case revealed to the public the fact that Timmendequas had previously been convicted of sexual assault of young girls. In 1979 he had pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a five-year old child, and given a suspended sentence, and ordered to attend counseling. Timmendequas refused to attend, he was sentenced to a mere nine months in prison.
Just two years later, Timmendequas pled guilty again to the assault of a seven-year old child. This time, he was sentenced to six years in prison. During his imprisonment, Timmendequas again refused to participate fully in his court-ordered treatment program. Multiple therapists gave opinions that Timmendequas was not motivated to change, and that he would eventually commit another sex crime. They did not, however, did not believe he would commit murder in the future.
The media’s publication of these facts caused a public outcry, as people, including Megan’s parents, believed that, had the parents been aware that their neighbor had a history of molesting children, they could have kept Megan safe.
The Evolution of Sex Offender Laws
Just a month after Megan’s murder, the New Jersey legislature passed a series of bills with the goal of helping law enforcement identify the presence of sex offenders in their jurisdiction. One of these bills required the establishment of a state-wide sex offender registry. Megan’s parents lobbied fiercely to Congress and, on May 17, 1996, President William Clinton signed the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
Jacob Wetterling Act
A subsection of the Federal Violent Crime Control Act, the Jacob Wetterling Crime Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act specifically requires states to establish registries of offenders that have been convicted of sexually violent crime against children. These offenders are subject to more rigorous registration than offenders who commit sexual crimes against adults. The Wetterling Act mandates that states must verify the addresses of sex offenders each year for 10 years, and requires sexually violent offenders to verify their addresses quarterly for their entire life.
Under the Wetterling Act, states could make registry information available to the public, but it was not required. An amendment to the Wetterling Act, referred to as “Megan’s Law,” requires law enforcement agencies to release sex offender registry information to the public. Still, sex offender registries were maintained separately by each state.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the Pam Lyncher Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act required a national database of sex offenders to be established, allowing law enforcement agencies to track sex offenders who cross state lines in an attempt to avoid the registry.
What is a Sex Offender Registry
A sex offender registry is a database containing information about sex offenders convicted in the United States. Every state keeps a separate registry system, which is used to monitor sex offenders living in the community. Sex offender registries are made available for public viewing, though the specific information provided to the public varies somewhat by state.
While each state maintains a sex offender registry, the U.S. Department of Justice maintains a National Sex Offender Registry, which allows anyone to search by both name and location. This database compiles information about sex offenders provided by every state, making it available in one place. This helps resolve the issue of sex offenders moving to another state, leaving neighbors, employers, and law enforcement unable to discover their offenses.
Sex Offender Registry Requirements
When an individual is convicted of a sex crime, he is required to register with the law enforcement agency in his jurisdiction immediately after being convicted, or after being released from prison. Each registered sex offender must re-register periodically, as required by their state’s laws, and must register with local law enforcement immediately upon moving to another jurisdiction.
When registering, the offender must provide his name, date of birth, social security number, photo, address, and information about his offense. Some states also require offenders to provide fingerprints and a DNA sample. Failure to register as required can result in a criminal charge.
Example of Megan’s Law Registry Requirement
Antonio was convicted of touching his eight-year old niece in a sexual manner, and served four years in prison. When he was released from incarceration, Antonio was required to immediately register as a sex offender, providing personal information, information about his crime, and his new address.
Three years later, Antonio begins to have problems with certain people in his neighborhood harassing him about being a sex offender, so he moves to another state to start again. When Antonio moves, he must register as a sex offender with the law enforcement agency in the new jurisdiction. This information will be available to the public as well, if they choose to search the online database.
Some states require law enforcement to proactively notify the neighborhood into which a sex offender moves, which could make Antonio’s life difficult from the very start. This example of Megan’s Law enforcement is typical in every state, and leads many sex offenders to move without re-registering, in an attempt to avoid social stigma, as well as monitoring by law enforcement officials.
Offenses Requiring Sex Offender Registration
While specifics of Megan’s Law vary slightly by state and federal legislation, conviction for certain sex-related offenses lead to the requirement for registration. Offenses requiring sex offender registration include:
- Sexual Assault
- Aggravated Sexual Assault
- Aggravated Criminal Sexual Contact
- Luring or Enticing a Child
- Kidnapping (of a minor victim, when the offender is not a parent)
- Endangering the welfare of a child by engaging in sexual conduct that would impair, destroy, or debase the moral purity of the child
- False Imprisonment
- Criminal Restraint
Example of Megan’s Law and Due Process
In Connecticut, a state statute requires the Department of Public Safety to make information about registered sex offenders available to the public on a website, as well as in certain state offices. This law serves as Connecticut’s version of Megan’s Law.
A sex offender, stated on court papers only as “John Doe,” filed a federal lawsuit claiming the law violated his Constitutional right to due process, as offenders were not allowed a a pre-deprivation hearing before their information was made public. The U.S. District Court agreed that public disclosure without a hearing violated the Due Process Clause, and issued an injunction against the public disclosure provision of the law.
The state of Connecticut appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court issued a unanimous opinion that due process does not require a convicted person be given an opportunity to prove a fact that is not material to the implementation of the state’s law. The Court also offered the opinion that the fact that such a person’s reputation might be injured, even by dissemination of defamatory information, does not constitute deprivation of liberty.
A pre-deprivation hearing is a hearing required before an individual may be deprived of his liberty or property. The Court has previously ruled that such a hearing is not required where a person has already been convicted of a crime for which such a deprivation may be made, as the conviction itself proves that the deprivation is not arbitrary, baseless, or unwarranted.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
- Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
- Deprivation – The taking away of a person’s life, liberty, property, or dignity.
- Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties will be given notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to be heard.
- Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
- Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Sex Offender – A person convicted of a crime involving sex, including rape, molestation, and production or distribution of child pornography.