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U.S. court ruling sparks debate over Colorado's sex offender registry

October 7, 2017 Updated: October 8, 2017 at 7:44 pm
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photo - A photo illustration of David, whose last name is withheld. He has been labeled a sex offender since 2007, when he was convicted of second-degree child molestation in Missouri following the end of his relationship with a girl he dated a month shy of her 14th birthday. He was 17. Ten years later, now living in Colorado Springs, David says he's still being punished. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).
A photo illustration of David, whose last name is withheld. He has been labeled a sex offender since 2007, when he was convicted of second-degree child molestation in Missouri following the end of his relationship with a girl he dated a month shy of her 14th birthday. He was 17. Ten years later, now living in Colorado Springs, David says he's still being punished. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

When David sifted through the mail the morning of his 18th birthday, he hoped to find cards with money. Instead, he received a warrant for his arrest. The charge: statutory rape.

It was 2007, and the 17-year-old junior basketball star had recently moved to a small Missouri town, population less than 500, and almost immediately started dating a girl who was one month shy of her 14th birthday. They were intimately involved for nearly three months before David ended the relationship.

A few weeks later, the girl accused him of statutory rape, statutory sodomy and second-degree child molestation. His father drove him to the local sheriff's office that night to turn himself in. David cried on the way, and he cried recalling his horror and embarrassment a decade later, from his home in Colorado Springs.

He eventually would plead guilty to second-degree child molestation and tampering with a witness in a deal that spared him rape charges, records showed. Still, he's required to register his address with the state once a year.

"Once you get that sex offender label, it's with you for life," David, 28, said. "I think of myself as trash."

But sex offender?

"No," he said.

He asked that The Gazette not use his last name to protect his identity.

Because David pleaded to a misdemeanor, his face isn't found on any online sex offender registry, which shows only adult felony offenders' names, addresses, photos and other identifying features. But because he's tracked by the state, his information is public. If someone were curious enough, they could ask their local law enforcement agency for a list of all registered offenders in their area, misdemeanants included. They'd find David's information there among men and women who have raped, distributed child pornography or molested young children.

While none of his neighbors in southeast Colorado Springs has discovered his secret - as far as he knows - he's suffered repercussions because of his "sex offender" label. He struggled to get a job, find a place to live, start a romantic relationship, be a father or generally move from under the dark cloud that has followed him since his conviction, he said.

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His plight is at the heart of a debate in Colorado over whether the state's public sex offender registry as it exists is needed for an informed public - or if it is cruel and unusual punishment.

The registry, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, makes it difficult for offenders to find work and housing. That's especially true for sexually violent predators, whose information is required to be distributed to the public with each move. Routine visits from law enforcement can also give offenders away.

The lawsuit argues that the notoriety often subjects offenders to consequences long after they've completed their sentences. It's one of the reasons the online Sexual Offender Tracking and Registration website specifically warns that the registry is not to be used "for any type of individual retribution, retaliation, discrimination, harassment or additional punishment," against sex offenders.

Still, it happens.

Rob Meredith Jr., CSPD detective with the registered sex offender unit, said he's heard occasional complaints from the city's roughly 1,400 sex offenders who have suffered harassment at the hands of their neighbors, but it is usually short-lived, Meredith said. Those who harass can be charged, he said.

The argument that the registry itself can result in repercussions was part of Senior Judge Richard Matsch's ruling in September that the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act is unconstitutional. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is appealing the ruling.

As it stands, Matsch's ruling applies only to the three plaintiffs in that particular case - David is not party to the case - but officials wonder what effects it could have on how the registry is maintained and who has access to it.

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Discrimination, not harassment, has been the worst punishment for David.

He'd moved to Colorado Springs in 2013 for a fresh start, after serving time in prison for "running" when he was on probation and legally bound to Missouri. Since then he has struggled to find stability.

He slept on the street or on couches for months until a coworker offered him one of her rentals. He never tried for any other housing.

"Why waste the application fee if you already know you have felonies, you're a sex offender?" David said. "Why even try, just to get shot down?"

He lucked out with employment, he said, finding a company that, at the time, didn't require background checks. Today, he makes $60,000 a year managing three of the company's locations.

But what if he loses his job? What if he wants to advance to a higher paying career? He's stuck, he said.

In an effort to better his future, David is petitioning to be removed from the registry, something he didn't realize he could have done years ago. He has no other criminal charges.

Aiding in his defense is his victim.

The woman, who we're identifying by her initials, S.C., which were used in court records, sent David texts in February asking for a judge to "give him a second chance." He plans to include the messages as part of his petition.

During their conversation, David asked her explicitly, "Did I every (sic) force you to have sex with me? Did I ever hold you down and force sexual things?"

"No u (sic) didn't. Force me. I wanted to have sex with u. We were kids. And he never forced sexual stuff on me," S.C. responded.

In another message she identifies herself by her full name and says "we were just kids. In love and had each other at that time..."

Whether consensual or not, their sexual relations were still illegal.

Unlike some other states, there is no "Romeo and Juliet" exception to sexual offenses in Missouri. The law, named for William Shakespeare's young lovers, typically protects young people from criminal charges in consensual sexual activity with other teens over the age of 14 but under the age of 18. Federal law also shows leniency toward sexual relations between two people between the ages of 12 and 18, as long as the couple is not more than four years apart (David was three years and 10 months older than S.C).

But in Missouri, the age of consent is 17. No exceptions.

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In a Facebook post, The Gazette asked locals to comment about their experience with the registry and whether they agree it should remain public.

Many who responded defended the registry as is, calling it important to the safety of their children. None of them agreed to be quoted.

Patricia McGuigan, 35, argued in favor of tweaks that would place only the worst sex offenders on the public list. She credited the story of a friend who was labeled a sex offender over a prank he pulled when he was 18 for "softening my glare at the sex offender registry."

McGuigan said her friend told her his trouble came after hanging his bare butt out of the window of a car while driving down Colfax Avenue in Denver. At the time, he'd laughed about "mooning" other drivers. Then he was charged for indecent exposure and forced to register as a sex offender, she said.

After that, "his life was ruined," McGuigan said. He had trouble finding jobs and he constantly was confronted by his past.

"I know that might not be the norm, but it's also the truth," McGuigan said. "People hear sex offender and automatically think, 'Oh my gosh, this person is going to rape my child.' They're right next to the man or woman who defiled a child, but these are not the same individuals or offenses. By putting them in the same category it makes the registry not as impactful."

Colorado Springs police warn about offenders offering overly-simplistic explanations for how they landed on the registry. A simple act alone is rarely enough for a conviction, Meredith said, adding that investigators must prove a person received sexual gratification from the act.

"Sex offenders can be very manipulative in the things they say and they do to try to convince you they didn't do this or they didn't do that," Meredith said. "They always say, 'Well I was drunk and I urinated in public and got an indecent exposure charge.' Well, you don't get an indecent exposure charge just for urinating in public. You get an indecent exposure charge for exposing yourself to someone. Somebody had to have seen that."

LeighAnn Phillips, 41, isn't convinced the registry serves the public. She wouldn't care if it ended.

Having moved around a lot with her military husband, Phillips, 41, said early on she always checked her neighborhood against the sex offender registry. But after living in residential communities with and without offenders, Phillips said she couldn't tell a difference.

"I didn't benefit from knowing," Phillips said.

Today, she lives in the Northgate area, down the street from a registered sex offender (she didn't specify his offense). She still allows her children, ages 11 and 14, to play outside.

"I wouldn't let my kids dog-sit for him but I don't distrust him. I wave to him and say hi," Phillips said.

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Now that he's started the process for getting off the sex offender registry, David said he's beginning to feel hope of a better life.

He has a good job. He's engaged. He and his fiancé are talking about buying a home.

What's missing is kids.

Registered offenders are prohibited from being in contact with children without the approval of Colorado's Sex Offender Management Board, which hinges on assessments, often involving a polygraph, to determine if the offender is a threat to children. David has completed those assessments and is waiting for a judge to review them.

"We can't make a family right now because of this sex offense," David said.

When he met his fiancé online in 2013, he didn't tell her about his offense, but she found out on her own. She drove to Missouri to talk to the deputy who arrested David as a teenager. She said she wanted to know the truth of what he did before she accepted him into her life, which came with two children, now ages 7 and 9.

David passed her test, but he's still barred from being around her children, who live with their father, until a judge sanctions the contact.

He's never met his 3-year-old son by a different woman.

"I'm not worried about him being around my kids alone," David's fiancé said. "It's one of those things where you're a young boy and you don't think."

David hung his head. His eyes filled with tears and his voice shook.

"It's hard, because I feel like my background is keeping us away from her kids and it upsets me," he said. "It's a background, it's not who I am."

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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