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New Federal Law that Brands Sex Offenders’ Passports Faces Court Challenge


First it was the so-called “War on Drugs,” complete with military-themed anti-drug task forces and disproportionately long prison sentences primarily reserved for poor people of color, which had little impact on U.S. drug consumption. Now it appears that war is being supplanted by an offensive against sex offenders.

A new federal statute, the “International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders,” or IML, was recently signed into law by President Obama. The legislation requires that U.S. passports must designate when the passport holder has been convicted of a sex offense. However, prisoners’ rights advocates are already filing legal challenges to what they argue is persecution of sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences.

One of those groups, Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc. (RSOL), said it was unfortunate that for the first time in the history of the United States, the passports of a class of American citizens will be “branded.”

“The citizens of this nation should be afraid, very afraid, that a unique identifier will soon be added to their passports,” according to RSOL spokesperson Brenda Jones. “Who will be the next targeted group?”

The first challenge to the IML was filed in federal district court in California on February 9, 2016. That lawsuit, which names Secretary of State John Kerry as a defendant, alleges that “the IML imposes a proverbial Scarlet Letter and compels speech in violation of the First Amendment by forcing Covered Individuals to identify themselves publicly as ‘sex offenders’ on their United States passport, which serves both as a primary form of identification within the United States as well as an essential international travel document.” See: John Doe v. Kerry, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:16-cv-00654-PJH.

The suit, filed by attorney Janice M. Bellucci with California RSOL, will likely rely on the decision in Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1997), which held the government cannot force someone to carry the government’s message, which is in effect what the new law would require sex offenders to do.

Another factor apparently not taken into account by either Congress or President Obama is the fact that sex offenders are already required to register with local law enforcement agencies, which must be notified when they plan to travel, including internationally.

Apparently the authors, sponsors and supporters of the new law were not aware of the fact that according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, the recidivism rate for sex offenders is only 5.3% for committing new sex crimes – much lower than the rate for almost every other criminal offense. But then the government apparently believes it’s not enough to sentence sex offenders to long prison terms; they must also be punished long after their release, including by having their passports “branded” with the nature of their offense.

Galen Baughman, a Soros Fellow with the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, is currently working on a separate legal challenge to the IML.


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Related legal cases

John Doe v. Kerry

Wooley v. Maynard