DENVER — Colorado's sex offender registry is unconstitutional, subjecting offenders to "cruel and unusual punishment" by the public and restrictions on their ability to find work or homes long after completing prison or probation and parole sentences, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled Thursday in the case of three offenders who want to remove their information from the registry, the latest example of courts limiting states' efforts to keep track of offenders.
Matsch wrote that the registry exposes "the registrants to punishments inflicted not by the state but by their fellow citizens."
The ruling has no immediate effect, even for the three offenders named in the case, said their attorney Alison Ruttenberg, but each can use the ruling to ask state judges to remove them from the registry. The decision still could have sweeping implications for Colorado and potentially other states, dependent on how state judges and other officials respond this fall.
Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said in a statement that the ruling won't affect operation of the registry. She didn't immediately say whether her office will appeal the decision.
"While concerning, yesterday's ruling affects only three individuals and does not call into question the constitutionality of Colorado's sex offender registry as a whole, which continues to be lawfully maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation," Coffman said. "I am committed to having a robust sex offender registry in our state that protects the public."
Ruttenberg said Colorado offenders can use Matsch's decision to ask state judges to remove them from the registry or to defend themselves against charges of failing to register.
If the state appeals to the 10th Circuit Court but fails to get the order overturned, the case also could be cited in other states, she said.
"These people had done everything society asked them to do," Ruttenberg said. "They served their sentence, stayed out of trouble and had done nothing else wrong but were being publicly vilified."
In Colorado, offenders' names, addresses, photos and other identifying features are posted on a state website, based on offenders' registrations with local law enforcement. The offenders' lawsuit argued that the information makes it difficult for offenders to find jobs and housing. Routine visits by police and flyers posted on doors clearly identify them as registered sex offenders, the suit says.
Matsch also blasted state judges who denied one offender's requests to be removed from the registry for "Kafka-esque" proceedings that asked the offender to prove that he would not commit another offense and then ruling against him on their "subjective opinions." The system continues to punish offenders for years after completing a court-ordered sentence, he said.
"The fear that pervades the public reaction to sex offenses—particularly as to children—generates reactions that are cruel and in disregard of any objective assessment of the individual's actual proclivity to commit new sex offenses," Match wrote. "The failure to make any individual assessment is a fundamental flaw in the system."