Sex Offenders’ Internet Aliases Must Be Disclosed

“Megan’s Law” took effect on April 21, 1996 to provide a means of protecting the public, especially school age children, from victimization by sexual offenders.  This is accomplished by tracking the whereabouts of convicted sexual offenders and providing notification to the public, including school districts, of their presence in their community.  On December 20, 2011, Pennsylvania amended Megan’s law to bring it into compliance with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.  With this amendment, Megan’s Law now expands the list of sexual offenses that require sexual offender registration and the array of information including internet identifiers, that registered sex offenders must provide to the Pennsylvania State Police.  Although school districts and parents could benefit greatly from access to this information as well, due to Free Speech concerns, the internet identifiers are not publicly accessible.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in Coppolino v. Comm’r of the Pa. State Police ruled on an issue of first impression that reporting a convicted sex offender’s internet aliases under Megan’s Law IV did not violate a registered sex offender’s First Amendment rights.  The October 14, 2014 decision from a seven-judge Commonwealth Court panel rejected Petitioner’s argument that being required to disclose his internet identities infringes on his right to anonymous free speech.  The Petitioner asserted that, “as a member of a widely despised group, sexual offenders,” anonymous speech was his sole opportunity to speak out on issues such as the treatment of sexual offenders.  The Court stated that Petitioner’s internet identifiers must be disclosed in the statewide sex-offender registry.  The Court determined that Megan’s Law IV anticipates the limited dissemination of registry information by only four methods: (1) information sharing between law enforcement agencies; (2) victim notification; (3) community notification; and (4) a public website.  According to the Court, none of these methods of dissemination authorized public disclosure of a registrant’s internet identifiers.  Megan’s Law IV requires that the Pennsylvania State Police provide information regarding a registrant, including internet identifiers, to other states in which the registrant lives, works or attends school; the federal government; and certain law enforcement officials.  However, it does not authorize further dissemination by these persons and entities and does not provide for dissemination to the general public, including school districts.  Nevertheless, there is a greater level of protection for school age children now that this information is disclosed to the State Police.

This was the first time the Commonwealth Court addressed this issue in Pennsylvania, although it had been addressed in other states in federal court.  Therefore, to make its decision, the Commonwealth Court reviewed how the other courts considered the issue.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska ruled in a 2012 case that statutes requiring offenders to register their internet identifiers were unconstitutionally overbroad because they were intertwined with a requirement that offenders had to consent to monitoring and possible searches of their computers and electronic devices.  The Nebraska federal court held the statute unfairly forced registrants to choose between their First and Fourth Amendment rights.

In 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia examined a provision that required offenders to report email addresses, user names and passwords to law enforcement.  While the information was to be kept confidential, law enforcement could release it if the information was deemed “necessary to protect the public concerning sexual offenders.”  The Georgia court ruled the internet aliases offenders were required to disclose, including information pertaining to blogs where protected speech could occur, were too broad.

The Commonwealth Court also pointed to courts which have held that internet-identifier reporting requirements were not overbroad.  The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined in 2010 that a Utah law requiring sex offenders to disclose email addresses, chat and instant messenger names was not overbroad because the information would only be used in criminal investigations and was not to be disseminated to the public.  In that case, the plaintiff similarly argued that his right to anonymous free speech was at stake.  However, the Tenth Circuit held the plaintiff’s rights were not infringed upon “simply because law enforcement might pierce his anonymity after he engaged in such speech.”

Lastly, the Commonwealth Court highlighted a recent Indiana Court of Appeals ruling concerning the registration of internet identifiers, including social networking information from a plaintiff who characterized himself as a “political activist opposed to sex offender registration.”  The Indiana court said the provision did not infringe on the plaintiff’s rights because he was not required to reveal his identity prior to commenting.

After comparing how the disclosed internet identifiers could be used under Megan’s Law IV with how other courts addressed their use in other legislation, the Commonwealth Court concluded that Megan’s Law IV’s requirement that sex offenders  disclose internet identifiers was not unconstitutionally overbroad and did not violate First Amendment rights.  As such, registered sex offenders must disclose internet identifiers under Megan’s Law IV.  Although the information is not directly accessible by school districts, if your district becomes suspicious that a student may be the victim of a sexual predator on-line, the concerns should be reported immediately to the police who will be able to access the internet identifiers of sexual offenders under Megan’s Law.  If you have any questions, please contact Judy Shopp at 412-242-4400.

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