Dec 9, 2021 - News

Tennessee's sex offender registry scrutinized

The Estes Kefauver Federal building in Nashville
The Estes Kefauver Federal Building. Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

A federal judge ordered eight men off Tennessee's sexual offender registry last week, saying their inclusion was tied to an "illegal" state policy.

  • It is the latest ruling criticizing the state for adding new restrictions for offenders years after they were convicted.

Why it matters: Rulings like this set the stage for broader efforts to change Tennessee's registry. They also provide a potential roadmap for some offenders convicted decades ago who want to be removed from the increasingly restrictive registry.

Zoom out: Tennessee's sex offender registry was established in 1994 as a largely confidential tool for law enforcement.

  • Lawmakers added a series of rules over the years that limited where offenders could live, work, and travel. The new rules apply to everyone on the list, even people convicted and sentenced before those rules existed.
  • Federal courts have repeatedly found that practice amounted to illegal retroactive punishment. A federal appeals court gave Michigan lawmakers 90 days to change their registry system to fix the same problem.

What she's saying: In her Dec. 3 order, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger said the registry was "not a license to heap an endless parade of new and severe punishments on individuals whose long-ago offenses carried no such consequences when committed."

  • "The framers of the Constitution chose to make that practice illegal," Trauger wrote.
  • "Nevertheless, Tennessee officials continue to flout the Constitution's guarantees."

The big picture: Trauger's ruling granting a preliminary injunction applies to eight men who are suing the state over the registry. But similar reasoning in other lawsuits has been used to remove offenders.

  • A panel of state lawmakers met in October to discuss the legal challenges and the possible need to change the rules surrounding the registry.
  • The Tennessean reported lawmakers were concerned the registry could be deemed unconstitutional if they didn't take action.
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