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New Jersey Attorney General John J. Farmer’s new guidelines for the release of Megan’s Law information are sufficient to ensure that private information about convicted sex offenders doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday. The court’s opinion, written by Circuit Judge Marion Trump Barry, calls the ruling an end to years of litigation concerning the constitutionality of New Jersey’s Megan’s Law, which instructs law-enforcement officers to notify the public of the whereabouts of released sex offenders. The appeal addressed two narrow issues — all that remained of a class action filed in 1997. The suit, Paul P. v. Farmer, alleged that the law’s community notification provisions violated released prisoners’ constitutional right to privacy. The first time the challenge reached the 3rd Circuit, the appeals court held that registrants had a privacy interest in only one bit of information that police could release about them under the law — their home addresses. The court also ruled, however, that the public interest in “knowing where sex offenders live so that susceptible individuals can be appropriately cautioned” was compelling enough to overwhelm the plaintiffs’ privacy interest. But the appeals court noted that “the fact that protected information must be disclosed to a party who has a particular need for it … does not strip the information of its protection against disclosure to those who have no similar need.” The case was remanded to the district court of New Jersey for a determination of whether the state’s procedures for releasing the information adequately guarded against unauthorized release. On remand, the plaintiffs found fault with several aspects of the community notification system, including the lack of penalties to deter unauthorized release of the information and inconsistency in the procedures followed. The New Jersey attorney general responded that its guidelines for release of Megan’s Law information cautioned in several places against improper disclosure. But U.S. District Judge Joseph E. Irenas pointed out that the plaintiffs had “summarized 45 incidents where confidential information released under Megan’s Law was distributed to unauthorized persons.” No system could be perfectly leak-proof, Irenas said, but there should be a uniform system that was at least reasonably calculated to prevent unauthorized disclosure. The guidelines as written failed to meet that standard, he held, and he ordered that they be redrafted. The current set of guidelines, issued on March 23, are Farmer’s response to that order. Under the new guidelines, two forms are used to notify the community of a sex offender’s presence — an “unredacted notice” and a “redacted notice.” The first form contains all the information — a registrant’s name, photograph, description, exact street address, exact business or school address, vehicle number and license number, and a description of the offense. Such unredacted notices are provided only to those who sign a “Megan’s Law Receipt Form” in which they agree to be bound by the “Megan’s Law Rules of Conduct,” which bar any unauthorized sharing of the information with others who were not notified by law enforcement authorities. The redacted notice contains all the same information except that the exact home and work addresses are replaced by street names and block numbers. The plaintiffs raised only two challenges to the new guidelines. They argued that they were deficient because they did not raise the threat of contempt-of-court sanctions for unauthorized disclosures. Second, they argued that the redacted notices were still too revealing because “a person’s block of residence is constitutionally protected information.” Irenas rejected both arguments, and the plaintiffs appealed. Their case was argued by Edward L. Barocas of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. Attorney General Farmer argued for the state. The appeals court agreed with Irenas. Noting that it had already found the state’s interest in disclosing where prior sex offenders live “compelling,” Barry pointed out that “Megan’s Law’s fundamental purpose … is public disclosure.” “For example, with a Tier 3 offender [one who has been deemed likely to commit a sex offense again], every parent of a child attending a school within the court-authorized notification zone is entitled to receive an Unredacted Notice,” Barry wrote. “In light of all these authorized public disclosures,” Barry said, “all that remains is the potential that a minimal burden … will be placed on appellants’ nontrivial privacy interest if there are subsequent, unauthorized disclosures with respect to a single piece of information, an offender’s address.” “Moreover,” the court found, “the notification order itself and the accompanying Rules of Conduct rigorously stress the confidentiality of the information being provided, comprehensively explain how the information can and cannot be used, and firmly warn against unauthorized disclosures.” Although the threat of contempt sanctions might further reduce the number of unauthorized disclosures, the court found, it isn’t necessary to make the process constitutional. Responding to the plaintiff’s criticism of the unredacted notices — that specifying what block a registrant lives on is a violation of a constitutionally protected privacy interest — the court again found the plaintiffs’ privacy interest was trumped by the state’s interest in disclosing Megan’s Law information to the “relevant public.” Jeff Beach, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, said Monday that the appellate ruling was “a disappointment for our clients.” The plaintiffs haven’t yet determined what their next step will be, he said, although he noted that a request for an en banc rehearing was possible. He pointed to a footnote in the appeals court’s opinion, which he called an invitation to “start over again at square one” if the new guidelines are ineffective — that is, he said, if there are more unauthorized disclosures, particularly ones that result in vigilante actions against his clients. “If the safeguards prove to be inadequate,” the footnote says, “we do not preclude an application to the district court for relief.” Shannon P. Duffy contributed to this report.

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