Megan’s Law site short on details
Child safety advocates, convicted molesters agree state’s online registry needs to be more specific to properly assess risks
By Donna Horowitz
The 55-year-old man warily opened the door to his Santa Rosa home – his deep-set eyes and the lines of age on his face a match to the picture on the state Web site identifying him as a registered sex offender.
He is one of more than 33,500 registered sex offenders statewide, and one of 630 in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, whose photos, names and addresses are a click away on the Megan’s Law registry that has been searched about 70 million times since it went online eight weeks ago.
While the Web site says the man was convicted of lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14, it doesn’t say the victim was his stepdaughter, the crime happened 15 years ago, he spent five years in prison and since has lived quietly in the South Park neighborhood and hasn’t been charged with a crime.
The information provided on California’s Web site is by design far less extensive than in other states and gives no guidance in determining whether the person pictured actually poses a threat.
Unlike registries in states such as New York, New Jersey and Texas, California’s site gives no details of the crime beyond the penal code section and nothing about the victim’s gender, date of conviction, prison sentence or whether the offender is on parole.
The Web site is named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered by a two-time convicted sex offender in 1994 who was new to the neighborhood. But the list of offenders covers a broad range of offenses, from violent sexual assaults to molesting children, and includes not only strangers, but offenders who in as many as 90 percent of the cases knew the victim, about half of whom were a family member.
Advocates with diametrically opposing views on Megan’s Law point to the California Web site’s shortcomings.
“You have no way of assessing how dangerous these people are,” said Steve Fabian, chairman of the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a critic of the law.
“I think it would be helpful if it were more specific,” said Gloria Young, executive director of United Against Sexual Assault in Sonoma County, a group that supports the law.
Prop. 69 expands DNA database
Police, prosecutors back measure; foes warn of risk to civil liberties
By STEVE HART
Police and prosecutors are backing an initiative that would greatly expand law enforcement’s use of DNA, but critics call it a dangerous assault on individual rights.
If Proposition 69 is approved by voters in November, anyone arrested for a felony eventually would be required to provide a DNA sample for the state’s crime database.
Currently, state law requires DNA samples from people convicted of certain violent felonies, including murder, kidnapping, sex crimes and robbery.
By adding anyone arrested for a felony, the measure would increase the size of the state’s DNA database from about 200,000 samples to more than 1 million within five years.
Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua backs the measure, saying Proposition 69 will help law enforcement catch criminals by matching suspects’ DNA to evidence found at crime scenes.
Sonoma County Sheriff Bill Cogbill said he’s also supporting the DNA measure.
“We’ve found it has been very successful in solving crimes,” he said.
Other backers include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the state police chiefs association. But opponents, including defense attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union, say it would violate the rights of innocent people.
Steve Fabian, a Sonoma County deputy public defender who heads the county’s ACLU chapter, said it will affect thousands of people who are arrested but not convicted – or even charged with a crime.
He said there are more than 50,000 felony arrests in California every year that don’t result in charges being filed. Under Proposition 69, DNA from those people would go into a database with samples taken from convicted felons, Fabian said.
He said information from DNA samples, including an individual’s medical data, could be misused by private companies. “Who knows how well your privacy is going to be protected?” he said.
People can lose their jobs or health insurance based on personal DNA information, which can be used to predict health problems, according to critics.
The initiative was proposed by Bruce Harrington, an Orange County attorney and real estate developer whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered in 1980. Police believe they were the victims of a serial killer who has never been identified.
The expanded California database would allow law enforcement to compare DNA from unsolved crimes to many more possible suspects, greatly increasing the chances of a match, according to Proposition 69 spokesman Mitch Zak.
More than 30 other states have comprehensive databases, and they’ve solved almost 40 percent of the crimes where DNA samples were in their systems, according to Proposition 69 backers. California solves only about 5 percent of crimes involving DNA.
But Proposition 69 goes far beyond the laws in other states, according to Maya Harris, an attorney for Northern California’s ACLU. Only Louisiana requires a DNA sample from anyone arrested for a felony.
Harrington decided to sponsor the ballot measure after legislators didn’t pass a bill that would have expanded the state’s database.
The initiative would immediately require all convicted felons to provide DNA samples. By 2009, any adult arrested for a felony would have to give a sample to law enforcement.
Zak denied that the measure would harm innocent people. He said those who are acquitted or never charged could ask a court to have their DNA removed from the database.
But Harris said judges have no obligation to remove samples from the system, leaving thousands of innocent people “trapped” in the criminal database.
Zak said the samples provide identification but they can’t be used to gain health information. According to Zak, the measure would protect innocent people by using DNA to rule them out as suspects.
DNA is taken with a swab from a person’s mouth and doesn’t require a blood sample. “It’s less intrusive than brushing one’s teeth,” Passalacqua said.
Cogbill said the DNA sample is similar to a fingerprint. But Sonoma County Public Defender Louis Haffner said DNA testing is “much more complex” than fingerprinting and he’s worried there will be mistakes in the process.
“There’s always the worry that DNA testing will be inaccurate,” he said.
Critics also say the system could cost $100 million a year to set up and maintain, taking money from law enforcement, education and other programs. Sponsors say it will cost only about $20 million a year and will be mostly funded by increases in criminal fines.
Petaluma Turns Up The Heat
By JEREMY HAY, The Press Democrat
Petaluma police buttressed their crime-fighting arsenal with a heat-seeking surveillance camera, which they unveiled Tuesday. Police say it will help in drug investigations, searches and other cases but civil liberties advocates say the device is a form of high-tech snoopery.
The $22,000 hand-held thermal imager, which resembles a large video camera, detects patterns of heat. It’s a version of the infrared technology U.S. military forces have used to search for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan’s mountain cave complexes.
“Its uses are almost endless and they’re still coming up with more,” said Petaluma Police Detective Martin Frye, who leads the department’s training program for the new device.
Most commonly used at night, thermal imagers are powerful enough to pick out a human in the dark at a distance approaching half a mile.
Frye said it can also detect clues important to a police pursuit or investigation such as the heat left by a hand on a window, or from a body that had been leaning until moments before on a lamppost.
Petaluma bought its thermal imager with a grant from the Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center of the Office of National Drug Policy.
Law enforcement officials say thermal imagers have proven invaluable in searching for prowlers or fleeing suspects, as well as for locating missing people when time is of the essence.
But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling has limited certain uses of such devices without a search warrant. Critics say even with that safeguard they represent too great a risk to privacy.
“This is just outrageous,” said Steve Fabian, a Sonoma County deputy public defender and co-chairman of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
“They’re just trying to get more and more sophisticated ways of getting into people’s homes,” Fabian said.
The manufacturers and police say critics are overstating the capabilities of the device, which works by detecting differences in surface heat.
“They’re not magic,” said Janet Kopec, spokeswoman for Raytheon Technical Services Company, which made Petaluma’s imager.
“You can’t see through walls and it’s not X-ray vision,” said Rohnert Park Police Sgt. Don Wagner, whose city will get its own thermal imager next year, also using a federal grant.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in June said federal agents improperly used a thermal imager to detect heat emanating from the house of a suspected pot grower in Oregon.
The court said using the device without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure.
Frye said the Law Enforcement Thermographers Association — which trains police departments on the camera — believes that witnesses in the Oregon case inaccurately described what the device “saw,” and “they’re waiting for another good case to come through to challenge that ruling.”
As it stands, he said, “we have to obtain a search warrant before we can infrared someone’s home or the surrounding area.”
Additional warrants are required for police to actually enter a home.
Other buildings open to the public, though, including businesses, are fair game, he said.
Petaluma’s thermal imager is the third in the county. Similar devices are used on the sheriff’s helicopter, and by the Sonoma County Narcotics Task Force, which uses it mostly for marijuana investigations.
“It’s just another tool to add to other investigative techniques,” said Kent Shaw, commanding officer of the narcotics task force.
“It’s a very slippery slope … the reality is it’s a search,” said Fabian, who called the thermal imager “an expensive toy.”