We live in the digital age. The modern workplace mandates use of the internet. Life completely offline isn’t feasible for most people, and that includes Maryland’s approximately 8,000 convicted sex offenders. Sex offender rights include some forms of internet access, albeit with monitoring by law enforcement and prompt reporting by the offender of any change in their internet identifiers. A landmark 2017 Supreme Court decision may broaden sex offender rights when it comes to internet usage and access.
Sex Offender List
The state sex offender list, or registry, is divided into three tiers. Each tier corresponds to the type of offense. Sex offenders convicted of a first tier crime remain on the registry for 15 years; second tier offenders remain on the registry for 25 years, and third tier offenders are registered for life.
Some of the sexual offenses involving cyber crimes fall into the Tier 1 category, including video voyeurism of a minor and possession of child pornography. Crimes involving cyber predators include:
- Misleading domain names on the internet
- Misleading words or digital images on the internet
Second tier sex offenders are not generally convicted for cyber predation, with the important exception of “distribution of child pornography.” Third tier sex offenses do not involve cyber predation per se.
Internet Changes and Notification
According to law, sexual offenders in Maryland must notify each law enforcement agency in the area in which they live as well as the Maryland State Sex Offender Registry of changes in their internet status within three days. Such changes include:
- Email addresses
- Instant messaging
- Computer log-in
- Screen name or another identity
- Chat room identity
Failure to inform authorities of changes within the allotted time could end criminal charges and with an arrest warrant issued.
Computer monitoring involves installing software on the sex offender’s computer allowing the law enforcement agents to not only track all activity, but alerting the agents to any items pre-programmed into the monitoring software for the individual offender. Those items may include victim names, names of law enforcement agents and any sites included in the offender’s supervision orders.
Social Media Access and Supreme Court Decision
Sex offenders were generally not permitted to access any social media sites, including business-oriented pages such as LinkedIn. However, a recent Supreme Court decision regarding a North Carolina case may change social media policies when it comes to sex offenders. The court ruled unanimously on June 19, 2017, that the North Carolina law – which made social media access a felony if the offender was aware that anyone under 18 could visit the site – violated sex offender’s First Amendment rights. The defendant, Lester Packingham Jr., received a suspended sentence at the age of 21 after pleading guilty to sex with a 13-year- old. In 2010, after beating a parking ticket, Packingham posted on Facebook of his victory under an assumed name. A Durham, N.C. police officer perusing Facebook for offenders who should not have been on social media saw Packingham’s posting. The officer found six other sex offenders with Facebook accounts.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “This case is one of the first this court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet. As a result, the court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “This language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the states are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sites, including for example internet dating sites.”
How this decision will affect laws related to sex offenders in Maryland and current monitoring situations is yet unknown.