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Danger Next Door: Megan's Law

NCJ Number
Law Enforcement Quarterly Volume: 26 Issue: 4 Dated: Winter 1997-98 Pages: 9-12
R Phillips
Date Published
4 pages
This article examines the responsibilities of local law enforcement under California's "Megan's Law," which gives police the discretionary authority to warn potential victims about previously convicted sex offenders in their community, regarding who and when to warn about this potential danger.
Enactment of the Federal "Megan's Law" in May 1996 mandated that all States must now pass laws that permit the dissemination of sex registration information for public safety purposes or forfeit 10 percent of their Federal crime control funds. By September 1996, California's governor had signed that State's version of Megan's Law. California's Penal Code section 290 gives police the discretionary authority to warn potential victims of previously convicted sex offenders living in their community. The statute lists what information the police are authorized to release, including descriptive information on the sex offender (photograph, home address, vehicles used, the crime for which he is registered, date of release from prison, parole or probation conditions, and the type of victim the offender prefers). Even though the statute protects both the individual police officer and the employing agency from civil liability, it does require that the law be applied in a consistent, reasoned, equal manner. At a minimum, an officer should seek supervisor approval prior to the public release of sex offender information. In order to prevent the use of the information for "vigilantism" rather than for self-protective measures that do not harm the offender, the California Legislature has attached some substantial penal sanctions for the misuse of the information; for example, using sex offender information to commit a felony will result in an enhancement of 5 years being added to and consecutive to the person's felony prison term.