A patchwork approach to the nation’s sex offense registry laws is leaving many of the 900,000 people on the country’s registries with a stark choice as COVID-19 sweeps the country: risk their lives or risk their freedom.
This week, a California man had to decide between putting his and his 65-year-old parents’ health at risk or potentially going to prison. Another is already in violation of his state’s law because he spent more than three days in the hospital with his pregnant spouse without first appearing at his local police department to report that he would be away from home. If he had left the hospital to try to report, he wouldn’t have been allowed to return because of the risk of spreading coronavirus. In Rochester, New York, a man on a registry called his local police department to tell them he had symptoms of COVID-19. He was told to report in person anyway.
While many of the country’s law enforcement agencies are finding ways to modify how they administer their sex offense registry laws, others are defying public health directives by forcing people to crowd into police stations in close contact with each other, members of the public, and law enforcement officials.
In California, the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws filed lawsuits last week against five jurisdictions that continue to require people with sex offense convictions to register and report in person. In a filing against the San Diego Police Department, the group argued that jurisdictions are in effect forcing sex offender registrants to “play Russian Roulette” with their lives. Governor Gavin Newsom’s office issued a statewide “stay at home” order on March 19, but many law enforcement agencies continued to require in-person registration. However, some jurisdictions have acted on their own and have taken measures to comply with COVID-19 warnings by moving to online or telephone reporting.