Joining Nevada and Florida, New Jersey is the latest state to enact legislation that strongly limits the rights of convicted sex offenders to use the Internet.
A bill, signed Thursday by New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey, allows judges to impose the restrictions and also makes it easier for authorities to monitor the online activity of the offenders.
The law applies to sex offenders whose actions are restricted by Megan’s Law, primarily those who are subject to lifetime community supervision or who are on probation or parole.
Helping Parents Sleep
“No matter how much you trust your kids, no matter how much you think you know what they’re doing, there are some sick people out there that will stop at nothing to prey on them,” said Codey, who is filling in as governor while Gov. Jon Corzine is out of the country.
The law “will give us some of the toughest tools in the nation to crack down on the growing threat of Internet predators,” said Codey, who introduced the law in the state Senate. It “will help a lot of parents sleep easier at night,” he said.
The law takes effect in 60 days. Under its provisions, a sentencing judge will be permitted to prohibit offenders from accessing or using a computer or other Internet-enabled device without prior court approval.
The law includes exceptions that permit job-related Internet work, or searches for employment — with parole officer or probation officer approval.
Offenders will be required to periodically turn over their computers or other Internet devices for inspection by authorities. They will also be forced to allow the installation in their equipment of hardware or programs that will monitor their online activity, and they will be required to submit to any other “appropriate restrictions” relating to their use of equipment to access the Internet.
The law makes it mandatory that the restrictions be imposed if it is ruled that the Internet played a part in the crime for which the offender was convicted but it also gives the State Parole Board the power restrict Internet access for other sex offenders, “regardless of whether they used a computer to facilitate their crime,” noted Codey.
Offenders who violate the Internet restrictions will be charged with a fourth-degree crime.
Danger a Mouse Click Away
The law brings the state’s sex offender legislation up to date, said Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, the bill’s primary sponsor in the Assembly.
“When Megan’s Law was enacted, few could even envision a day when a sex offender hiding behind a fake screen name would be a mouse-click away from new and unwitting victims,” said Greenstein. “Sex offenders cannot be given an opportunity to abuse the anonymity the Internet can provide as a means of opening a door to countless new potential victims.”
However Santa Clara University Assistant Professor Eric Goldman, an expert in cyberlaw, said the law is grammatically sloppy and bothersome in a number of more important ways.
Don’t Touch That
“It says it prohibits a person from using a computer or any other device with Internet capability without permission,” Goldman told TechNewsWorld. He doubts whether the bill’s authors really meant to prohibit the use of computers.
The law doesn’t define the word Internet, Goldman noted, adding that cars, digital video recorders, home appliances, cell phones and many other devices can connect to the Internet.
“The Internet is ubiquitous,” he said. “In 10 years, we are going to look back at laws like this and we are going to laugh at them. We’re going to say, ‘That is so stupid. The Internet is everywhere.’ It’s like saying you can’t use the roads.”
Attempts by legislators to craft over-reaching laws relating to sex offenders are problematic, Goldman said.
“This is part of much broader social campaign to strip away rights and powers of sex offenders,” he said. “Basically sex offenders are the new pariah. They’re the target of legislative activity that allows legislators to feel they’ve done something really important without any political opposition whatsoever. We’ve seen this over and over and over again — legislators looking for ways to pass laws attacking the problem of sex and the Internet — and sex offenders are a convenient target.”
Goldman said the New Jersey law is typical of these types of efforts, where nobody is willing to stand up and challenge the bills since sex offenders have no “political clout” and are universally hated. “There’s zero opposition,” he said “Nobody votes against these laws and nobody comes into the Legislature to combat them.”
Part of a Package
While Goldman said there is no proof these type of laws prevent recidivism, Internet Alliance Executive Director Emily Hackett said the organization has no problems with New Jersey’s action.
“It gives law enforcement another arrow in their quiver to use for repeat offenders,” Hackett told TechNewsWorld.
However, the Internet Alliance opposes another bill pending in New Jersey, one that would require online dating sites to tell state residents whether they do criminal background checks.
Online dating site customers need protection from predators, said Codey, who also sponsored that bill. However, the proposed legislation will do little but give them a false sense of security, Hackett said.
“While the sex offender registration is consistent with current law, doesn’t raise Constitutional challenges and goes after the bad guys, that’s not true of this companion bill, part of a package that Codey put together, that has all sorts of regulations about what to do if you do background checks and what to do if you don’t do background checks,” said Hackett. “It’s a situation where you are asking an industry to do a lot of notification where people might feel something has happened that would make them feel more secure when they really are not.”