At an upcoming legislative hearing, Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Bernalillo—a retired sheriff’s deputy with a record of tough public-safety positions—will be forced to explain why sex offenders have a right to privacy.
Rehm is the sponsor of House Bill 24, a piece of legislation he says is designed to enhance law enforcement’s ability to track sex offenders by requiring offenders to register their phone numbers, e-mail addresses and online screen names for Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
As far as Rehm knew, the bill would keep all this new registration information confidential and off the state’s online sex-offender registry. After all, that’s what the final line of the Fiscal Impact Report—a compilation of summary and analysis of the bill from state agencies—says: “Additional information would not be included on the public website.”
The report and Rehm were wrong.
Upon analysis, SFR discovered that, as written, the public would have a right to this information. The Department of Public Safety would also have to publish the information on the Web site.
SFR approached the Legislative Council Service, the body of the Legislature that drafts bills, which confirmed SFR’s conclusion. At SFR’s request, Randall Cherry, the analyst for the New Mexico Sentencing Commission’s Sex Offender Management Board, who drafted the line about the public registry, also took a second look at the bill. This time, Cherry agreed with SFR’s conclusion and is submitting a correction.
Already, offenders’ addresses are available online (and mapped out on Google Maps), with stiff penalties for those who use that information to intimidate or threaten an offender. Releasing telephone numbers goes too far, Rehm says, and as a result of SFR’s research, he says he will introduce an amendment in the House Judiciary Committee to protect the privacy of registered sex offenders.
“I don’t want to put all this information out to the public where someone might [use it] to harass an individual,” Rehm says.
The larger question remains: How did the flaw in the bill escape him?
“It slipped by, if you will, Legislative Council [Service], who drafted the bill; it slipped by the Sentencing Commission, who analyzed the bill; and it obviously slipped by me,” Rehm tells SFR. “I’m totally dumbfounded how that happened, but we will be able to correct it.”
The bill also slipped past Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Bernalillo, chairwoman of the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee. Chasey has a record of standing up for the rights of offenders and yet, HB 24 received a unanimous vote of approval from her committee.
The issue of public access to the information never came up during committee, Chasey says. However, upon learning of the bill’s impact, Chasey has switched her position on it.
“It seems much more an invasion of privacy than we had in mind—we want to protect the public but not make it impossible for a human being to live,” Chasey tells SFR.
Chasey says the volume of work in the 60-day session can lead to such oversights.
“Things like this can happen because we do so much in a such a short period of time,” Chasey says. “What we rely on are the bill drafters’ analysts to call our attention to the possible unintended consequences. But I have to tell you, they are overwhelmed with work as well.”
In 2003, Rep. Al Park, D-Bernalillo, sponsored the Omnibus Sex Offender Bill (which created the Sex Offender Management Board), and yet HB 24 slipped past him, too; the record has him absent for the vote. However, Park chairs the House Judiciary Committee, where HB 24 must be heard next. Park says the bill could be scheduled as early as Feb. 4. Rehm and Chasey also sit on the committee, as do 11 other members.
“Unfortunately, the nature of a 60-day legislative session that is so compact is that people make mistakes,” Park says. “I don’t mind if people make mistakes…but ultimately it’s up to legislators to review the legislation, then review the analysis and come up with their own independent determination of whether they think a bill should pass or should not pass.”
As for Rehm’s amendment, Park is behind it—in theory.
“We want to make sure people aren’t harassed, even people who have been convicted of crimes,” Park tells SFR. “We want to make sure they have an opportunity to move on with their lives if they’ve fulfilled all the terms of the parole.”
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