A woman barred by her church from a marathon to fight hunger and a man who saw hatred spewed so often his daughter was forced to move and his wife took her own life — they and others are seeking removal from Missouri’s life-long sex offender registry, arguing it is unconstitutionally cruel.
The children of many of the 25 John and Jane Does seeking removal have also joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed recently in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, claiming the lifetime requirement of their parents has deprived them of their constitutional rights as well.
Named as defendants are Missouri State Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Eric Olson, technical services commander Maj. David Flannigan and criminal justice information services director Capt. Christopher Jolly.
State Attorney General Eric Schmitt responded to the suit on Monday, writing the plaintiffs are barred from bringing suit by sovereign immunity and the time to file has passed. He also argued they have not exhausted administrative remedies and challenged whether federal court was the proper venue as opposed to the state courts.
Attorney Clifford Cornell, who is representing the plaintiffs, did not return a call seeking comment, but in the petition writes that in the case of his clients, the registry results in retribution for past offenses more than the public safety it was originally intended to promote.
“The Missouri Legislature is prohibited from inflicting punishment on a particular person or group through legislative action without trial or judicial action,” the petition reads. “SORA violates the above constitutional bans as it imposes punishment on an affected class whose membership is based entirely on past conduct with no method or process provided for escaping the class.”
In the petition, the offenders seeking relief detail how the registry has negatively impacted their lives long after serving their sentences. Some of those effects are hurtful, such as missing sporting events, name calling and being shunned in the community. Others are far reaching and devastating.
Public ridicule, repeated vandalism of his home and other detrimental actions towards John Doe 1 over a count of lewd acts with a child in 1992 drove his daughter to live in another state. His wife became addicted to drugs and eventually committed suicide, the petition reads.
John Doe served three years in prison and successfully completed probation and was placed on the registry. He was consistently classified as a low risk offender but in 1999 he found his tires slashed and a note on his windshield telling him to “be careful” among other slurs.
A year later his house was spray painted and rocks and garbage were thrown through his windows. Over the years he lost jobs, contracts, income and in 2007, after neighborhood residents posted his registration on flyers and spread them throughout the community, he was forced from his home to a hotel.
In 2009, after being threatened with physical violence by strangers, his wife turned to drugs to cope. The couple continued to struggle with harassment and in 2016 she took her own life, according to the petition.
Jane Doe 1 was convicted in August 2009 for second-degree statutory rape in Phelps County and sentenced to five years probation. As her case was pending, in 2008, she was hired as a nurse at a dialysis clinic and was honest with her employers about the charges, the petition reads.
As her case played out between 2008 and 2010, she was promoted twice, first to charge nurse then interim administrator. Her performance was such, according to the petition, the clinic planned her promotion to clinic administrator even in light of the charges.
Following her March 2010 guilty plea and days after being placed on the registry, she was fired by the regional director and escorted from the building. In Missouri, no one may work in a nursing home whose name appears on the Family Care Safety Registry, which includes the sex offender registry.
Along with her lack of income and public shaming, she was advised by her local church that while she could attend, she could not participate in any capacity. People whisper and stare when she appears in public and it is impossible for her to even drop her children off at school due to Missouri laws prohibiting her from doing so, the petition reads.
Their stories mirror those heard around the state by national organization, Women Against the Registry, whose Missouri chapter is based in Arnold, just south of St. Louis. Treasurer Debra Grund says some registrants in the state being punished by society for crimes committed in their teens and innocent family members are forced to bear the burden alongside them.
“A lot of our families cannot find housing if there is a registrant among them,” Grund said. “A number of families, children have been asked not to participate in extracurricular activities because they don’t want to notify other families. You have people yelling across the stands saying you shouldn’t be here.
“Some of these people did something when they were 19 or 20 years old and paid their debt to society and at 40 they’re still dealing with this and their families are still dealing with this.”
Changes made to the registry in 2018 by the legislature aimed to address some of the issues. Missouri moved to a three-tiered system where violent offenders would be separated from lesser offenders and also offered the possibility of eventual removal for some cases after 10 years or 25 years.
Matt Huffman, spokesman for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the organization opposed changes in 2012 to a tiered system that would have also eliminated the publication of lower level offender data.
“It would have really weakened many of the safeguards that were put in place to bring more accountability to sex offenders and provide more safeguards for victims,” Huffman said. “That being said, it also ended up not passing that legislative session because it would have put Missouri out of compliance with federal regulations.”
However, when revisions were made in 2018 establishing the three-tiered system, Huffman said the group recognized a change was needed and that some low risk offenders should be allowed to petition for removal.
“The sex offender has merit and an accountability and tracking mechanism, but we also know it’s not a fail-safe for preventing a violent offender from re-offending,” Huffman said. “So that’s where we kind of have to look at context and develop a system of assessing who can essentially come off the registry and how do we make sure there are tracking mechanism and accountability measures for those who really need to be there.”