Nevada to embark on new sex offender registry system, but critics say it's overly harsh
Las Vegas attorney Alina Shell represents sex offenders, and she said it’s been an emotional time in recent weeks among clients calling her office.
Starting Oct. 1, Nevada will be implementing its version of the federal Adam Walsh Act, a law that significantly changes the way the state classifies its more than 7,200 sex offenders. Rather than categorizing them according to their projected risk of reoffending, they’ll be categorized according to the original crime they were convicted of — a process that will reshuffle thousands of them and lead to many having their names, addresses and pictures on a web-based sex offender registry for the first time.
“We all know the internet is forever,” Shell said. “The bulk of these individuals who are facing redesignation are folks who did one really terrible thing at one point in their life and they’ve moved on and they’re better people and now they’re getting punished down the road for something they’ve paid the price for already.”
Among her clients who have fought the change: A 48-year-old North Las Vegas man who pleaded no contest in 1997 to solicitation of a 13-year-old via computer and attempted lewd and lascivious acts in the presence of a minor. The unnamed plaintiff went on to marry his wife, a schoolteacher, in 2004, and started his business in 2015.
Under the Adam Walsh Act, he’ll be moved from Tier I to Tier III — the category reserved for the most serious offenses — and have his name, photo and address posted on the online sex offender registry for the first time. He’ll also be subject to “community notification” if police choose to pursue that, meaning authorities could knock on his neighbors’ doors or send postcards to people who live or work nearby and warn them that he’s in the area. He fears that will lead to him losing his business and his wife being harassed at her workplace.
The law’s implementation will have other effects: Sex offenders who could previously renew their registration online or through the mail will have to visit a police station in person as often as every three months. And people who were released from registering because enough time had elapsed since their crime will once again be subject to reporting requirements.
Supporters of the changes include Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a gubernatorial candidate whose office fought to implement the law, which was passed a decade ago but faced litigation in state and federal court ever since. When the Nevada Supreme Court lifted a stay on implementation in April and ordered the law enacted by October, Laxalt praised the “favorable” settlement in a statement.
“Imposing extra reporting requirements on sex offenders will help keep our communities safer,” said Laxalt, “which is why my office has been involved in this litigation for several years. I am proud of our role in protecting Nevada’s public by allowing for an offense-based tiering of sex offenders and providing the community with information on registered sex offenders.”
Not all Republicans agree with him. Republican Sen. Pete Goicoechea had co-sponsored an amendment that would have meant the stricter Adam Walsh rules would apply only to people who had been convicted in the past decade after the state law was passed, rather than retroactively to convictions dating to 1956.
Goicoechea said he had a constituent who was convicted of statutory rape in the 1950s. The constituent later married the woman and they’ve been together for decades, but he’ll now have to register as a sex offender.
The law offers few options for people to phase off the list through good behavior, or to appeal if they believe they’re mistakenly categorized.
“I believe it was kinda a knee jerk reaction,” Goicoechea said about the Legislature’s decision to pass the Adam Walsh Act in 2007. “Elizabeth Smart and high profile cases were going on and everyone responded that we needed to be tough on sex offenders ... there’s been a lot of publicity, but looking back, our hindsight’s a lot better than our foresight. It was probably a mistake to adopt it without putting some mechanism” to appeal.
From Megan’s Law to Adam Walsh Act
Nevada currently governs sex offenders under Megan’s Law, the name for federal and state laws generally enacted in the mid-1990s and in the name of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was killed in 1994 by a convicted child molester who moved into her neighborhood without her family’s knowledge.
Such laws require offenders released from incarceration to register with the state. The laws also require law enforcement advise members of the community, schools and organizations that work with children if a sex offender is reasonably likely to encounter children they work with.
Under Nevada’s version of Megan’s Law, offenders initially register in person, but then renew their registration by mail. They are evaluated by the state and classified into one of four different tiers based on the state assessment’s determination of their likelihood to re-offend, with Tier 3 considered the most severe and likely to commit another sex crime.
The risk assessment is performed by officials at the state’s Central Repository, which maintains criminal records. They consider a range of factors before assigning a tier, including the offender’s age and health condition, psychological profile, and response to treatment and behavior while incarcerated. They also evaluate whether the person will be in therapy or on parole after release, whether their initial crime was part of a pattern of behavior or considered compulsive, the age when the person committed the crime and information from victim impact statements.
“Our prior law actually worked well and there was no need to change it,” said Democratic Sen. Tick Segerblom.
In 2006, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. President George W. Bush signed it on the 25th anniversary of the abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, the son of “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh.
It was championed by Elizabeth Smart, a Salt Lake City girl who had been kidnapped at age 14, held for nine months and repeatedly raped by her captor.
“I don't want it to happen to anyone else," Smart, who was 18 at the time, told ABC News about the Adam Walsh Act. "This bill should go through without a thought."
The measure expanded and standardized the sex offender registration requirements, narrowed options for getting off the registry, and reclassified offenders based on the offense they were convicted of, rather than the likelihood that they’d reoffend.
Rather than signifying a level of high risk, a Tier 3 designation now means the person previously committed a crime including a sexual act by force or threat, a sexual act with a child younger than 12, a non-parental kidnapping of a minor or a sexual act with someone who is drugged, incapacitated or otherwise unable to consent.
Offenders must provide authorities in their area with their name, Social Security number, home, work and school addresses, license plate number and a description of any vehicle he or she uses. They also must notify authorities when they travel.
The Act aimed to set a baseline for states in how strict their sex offender laws needed to be, and states that didn’t substantially implement the Adam Walsh Act would lose federal law enforcement grants. But as of 2017, only 17 states had substantially implemented it — Nevada being one of them.
Segerblom, who has tried at least twice to repeal the Nevada version of the law, framed the decision to pass the state version of the Adam Walsh Act in 2007 as a rush job.
“We passed it because we only meet every two years, and the Legislature met right after the national Adam Walsh Act was passed,” he testified in the 2017 session. “We passed the most onerous law in the country. In fact, we still have probably the worst law in the country. Most states have never enacted the Adam Walsh Act. The ones that have enacted a law much less serious than ours.”
Minutes from the 2007 session indicate that then-Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s office argued for passage on the basis that the new system would bring more “objectivity” to the ranking of sex offenders because it wouldn’t involve a case-by-case risk assessment. The Democrat’s office also argued that the bill was needed to bring Nevada into compliance with federal law and that doing so speedily might qualify the state for some bonus funding.
Critics say the amount of money the state would forego by not implementing Adam Walsh is small, while the cost of implementing the bill is much larger and is still unknown. The state would have lost a bit more than $200,000 a year in federal grants if it didn’t enact the Adam Walsh Act.
Shell added that since Nevada passed the law, courts in other jurisdictions have ruled against provisions of the Adam Walsh Act and allowed states to implement less severe versions.
Battle in the Courts
Much of the frustration over Nevada’s version of the Adam Walsh Act has been that it applies retroactively. Segerblom and others point out that at the time many offenders pleaded guilty to a crime, they would not have known that later on, they would be subject to lifetime registration. In some cases, the internet and the implications of online sex offender registries didn’t exist at the time of their plea.
“I could see something that says if you do something tomorrow, here’s what’s going to happen to you,” he said. But, “a lot of these people pled guilty in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, with a different law, and then to say, ‘by the way, now you’re going to be on the internet because we upgraded your status’ — that’s wrong and probably unconstitutional.”
He also has concerns that offenders will have no incentive to stay on the straight and narrow. Even if they’re on their best behavior, they’ll be branded with a scarlet letter for life if they’re convicted of a particular crime.
“Allow people to show that they have rehabilitated themselves and come off the list. If they don’t show it, they don’t come off,” he said. “With the Adam Walsh Act, once you’re on there you’re stuck. That’s just not healthy for society.”
And then there’s the concern that with hundreds more people who have been adjudicated “low risk” moving up to Tier III, law enforcement will be spending much more time supervising people unlikely to reoffend while perhaps ignoring those who were initially arrested for a small crime but have psychological traits that make them susceptible to commit another crime.
Researchers have found that recidivism rates among sex offenders are significantly lower than the general public’s opinion. A Lynn University sex crimes researcher found the public perception is that 75 percent of sex offenders will commit another sex crime; another study found that less than one-quarter of sex offenders re-offend within 15 years.
Court battles to nullify the law have been going for a decade. In 2012, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state in a lawsuit from the ACLU, saying it was constitutional to retroactively apply sex offender registration rules back to crimes committed in 1956.
Attorneys are continuing to fight against the law in state court. At one point, Nevada’s online sex offender registry — complete with hundreds of names that hadn’t been public before — went live before attorneys sought and received a stay.
“We actually did go live on July 1, 2016, for about 30 minutes,” Julie Butler, head of records at the Department of Public Safety, testified in 2017. “We then got the emergency Nevada Supreme Court order staying us from going live. We had many obviously panicked people as we did briefly go live, and we had a mad rush to take the website down and revert back.”
This spring, the Nevada Supreme Court dissolved that stay, clearing the way for the site to go live again on Oct. 1.
Shell said there’s no real option to prevent the names from going online on Monday, but that the state-based legal case on the constitutionality of the law overall is still alive. The Nevada Supreme Court dissolved the stays because the underlying legal issues had not been sussed out; lawyers including Shell are now in the process of discovery in their case Does 1-17 vs. Laxalt.
The matter is also expected to come up again before lawmakers. Segerblom and Goicoechea’s efforts to repeal or water down Nevada’s Adam Walsh Act failed to gain sufficient support and never came up for a vote in 2017 — both cited the poor optics of supporting sex offenders with an election year around the corner. But Segerblom — who is running for a seat on the Clark County Commission and may not be in the Legislature next year — has submitted a bill draft request to repeal the act in the 2019 session.
Shell acknowledges that sex offenders are an unsympathetic group, even as she fights a law that she believes goes beyond the scope of regulating offenders and into the realm of imposing a new punishment on them beyond their original sentence.
“They’re among some of the most reviled people in society, often subject to harassment,” she said. “The attitude about sex offenders is never going to change.”
Preparing for the rush
For now, local police agencies are preparing for more work. All sex offenders in Clark County now must register in person at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters in downtown Las Vegas, even if they live in far-flung areas of the county.
They’ll submit to photos, give a DNA sample, have their fingerprints and palm prints taken.
“That’s obviously going to be a bigger load for our records section,” said Metro spokesman Jay Rivera.
In hopes that the higher volume of sex offenders visiting the office doesn’t hinder people who are coming to the police department for other reasons, Rivera said the agency is urging people do more of their business at regional “area command” substations or online. People can submit reports of minor accidents online rather than coming into the office, for example.
In the meantime, the agency will be fielding quarterly check-ins with people including a 56-year-old John Doe who was convicted of battery with intent to commit sexual assault when he and the victim were both 16. A plaintiff in the lawsuit, Doe has not had any further criminal convictions since, has participated in therapy and has an adult son, according to the complaint.
He is being bumped from Tier II to Tier III with the change, meaning he will now have to register for life. He is already on the sex offender website — something he believes led to the vandalism of his home — and contends that if the police proactively notify his neighbors of his sex offender status, he’ll experience more harassment.
Segerblom doesn’t believe the adjustment will increase public safety.
“All it does is it takes a bunch of people who were lower down in the level or had rehabilitated themselves and it puts them back to the top and puts them on the internet,” he said. “And when you have that, first of all it just scares the crap out of everybody and second, there’s just too many people for the cops to focus on.”
Disclosure: Tick Segerblom has donated to The Indy. You can view a full list of our donors here.