Changes to sex offender list cause confusion

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly nine months after the state made court-ordered changes to the sex offender registry, there’s still a lot of confusion and questions about enforcement.

Michigan State Police say they are not enforcing violations of the law, which is meant to track offenders, while other agencies are.

The registry includes more than 40,000 names.

The confusion started a few years back when a federal judge, in response to a lawsuit filed by the University of Michigan Law Clinical Program and the American Civil Liberties Union, ruled parts of the sex offender registry unconstitutional.

Among the flaws: requiring sex offenders to immediately report whenever they moved, got a new car or got a new phone number; and banning sex offenders from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools.

The school safety zone was important to Jessica Monteith and her daughter, who was 11 when the 40-year-old father of a school friend molested her in 2010.

“Knowing that sex offenders were not allowed on school property was almost a sigh of relief for her,” the mom said of her daughter.

The state responded to the federal court ruling with a new sex offender registry law in December 2020.

It eliminated the 1,000-foot school safety zones.

“The only people who knew about it were the sex offenders that received the letter from the governor in March 2021 saying these are the new statutes, one of which is the student safety zone has been eliminated,” the mom said.

“So many of the school employees don’t even know that this has changed,” she said.

Before the law changed, her daughter was at her Northview High School graduation when her molester, who is on the sex offender list, showed up. His son also was graduating.

“She had a panic attack,” her mom said. “It didn’t go well.”

Since he was violating the sex offender law, deputies escorted him away, she said. The new law wouldn’t bar him from school property.

“Not being able to protect the children from them (offenders) is alarming,” Monteith said.

What also is troubling, some say, is the confusion. In response to COVID-19, the same federal judge last year ordered a temporary halt to enforcement of the sex offender registry. That was because COVID-19 made it difficult for offenders to get to police departments as the law required.

“There were stay-at-home orders, there were lots of restrictions, police departments weren’t open,” said ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney Miriam Aukerman.

State police spokeswoman Lt. Michelle Robinson said that since the department is named in the federal lawsuit, it won’t enforce the registry. If troopers come across an offender who hasn’t updated his home address, they won’t go for an arrest warrant, she said.

“Since February 2020, the department has been under an Interim Order and Injunction issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan that prohibits the MSP from enforcing registration, verification, school zone and fee violations of the Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA),” Robinson wrote in an email to News 8.

But Kent County Undersheriff Chuck DeWitt said his deputies will enforce the law.

“Our officers have adjusted,” he said. “Our staff here in the office have adjusted, so effective March 24, everyone’s working on the same page, off of the same sheet of music, if you will.”

The ACLU said the state police are wrong — that the federal judge in March issued an order to lift the injunction and allow all police to enforce the law.

“There’s a tremendous amount of confusion about what the law requires, and I think one of the things to understand is for people who are on the registry, they’re looking at potentially going to prison for a long period of time if they get it wrong,” Aukerman said.

She said she expects more challenges to the law.

“They (the state Legislature) put a Band-Aid on it because they were under court order to do something, but they haven’t addressed the problem, which is we have this bloated system, 44,000 people with no path off who have to comply with Byzantine requirements in a registration scheme that does not protect families,” Aukerman said.

In 2019, Michigan had the fourth-highest number of registered sex offenders in the U.S., according to safehome.org.

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