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Could An Expansion Of Megan's Law Help To Prevent More Abductions?

Tuesday, Aug. 06, 2002

From Danielle van Dam, to Elizabeth Smart, to Erica Pratt, to Samantha Runnion, to the two teenage girls abducted and raped in California last week, this has been a summer marked by a terrible string of child abductions and murders. The inevitable question arises: Could these tragedies have been prevented?

Moreover, these do not seem (except possibly in Danielle's case) to be instances of parents allowing their children to run free and unsupervised. The California girls, sixteen and seventeen, were old enough to be dating. The smaller girls were old enough to venture at least to their own yard or, in Erica's case, the street corner in front of her house.

Does that mean nothing can be done? It might seem so. Urging parents to oversee their children carefully has its limits; it would be sad if children were to be told that they cannot even play in their own yards anymore. And we cannot reasonably ask most parents to be more vigilant than they already are. After all, what parent, this summer, is not hyper-vigilant?

But we can at least ask law enforcement to help parents as much as it can. Specifically, we can ask the government to apprise parents, insofar as it is possible, of the identities and appearances of people who may pose a risk to their children, and to make it easier for the perpetrators to be apprehended when abductions do happen.

In a prior column, I suggested expanding Megan's Law to include information on all offenders who have committed violent or sex felonies, including murder and rape, regardless of whether the victim was an adult or a child. Now I ask readers to consider an additional, different expansion of the law - to encompass warrants, dropped charges (which can often result from fear or family pressure on the complainant), and even acquittals.

The status of the charges, and the evidence in favor of the defense, could be listed prominently - but the evidence that supported the charges could be listed too. That would allow parents to judge for themselves whether the charges mean the person whose photograph is posted remains a threat, or never was a threat in the first place.

Expanding Megan's Law this way, I will suggest, might have saved at least some of this summer's victims.

How an Expanded Megan's Law Might Have Prevented Samantha Runnion's Death

Had Megan's Law been expanded in the way I have suggested, Alejandro Avila - the man authorities are "100% confident," reportedly based on DNA evidence, is Samantha Runnion's rapist and killer - still might have committed his crimes. But not necessarily. And even if he had, he might have been interrupted, or at least caught more quickly.

Avila had previously been charged with, but acquitted of, molesting two little girls. Under an expanded Megan's Law, he should have received Internet exposure - with his address and photo posted - based on those charges.

Granted, studies have shown that many repeat sex offenders act under a compulsion, and cannot be deterred. But some can. And if a chance of deterrence might have saved Samantha's life, the Internet listing would have been worth it.

Moreover, even if the Internet exposure did not deter Avila, it might have led to his apprehension at some point after Samantha was abducted, but before she was killed. Observers marveled afterwards at how much Avila resembled the police sketch of Samantha's abductor. Had his photo been on the Internet, the match would have been instantly evident as soon as her playmate gave her description to the sketch artist - which could have occurred very soon after the crime, perhaps soon enough to identify Avila as a suspect and track him down before he killed Samantha.

Statistics show that when children are abducted, they are often killed within the first few hours - meaning that to be effective, policing must be very, very quick. And in Samantha's case, police thought timing was especially crucial: Profilers worried, based on what had been done to Samantha, that they were dealing with a serial killer who might strike again. Having Avila's photo on the Internet ahead of time, based on the prior charges, could have made all the difference.

California Must Also Make Megan's Law Information More Accessible

This would also have required an additional, separate change in California's version of Megan's Law - but it is a change that is sorely needed, and should be made as soon as possible.

Currently, and ridiculously, to access Megan's Law information, California residents still must go to view a CD-Rom at a "law enforcement agency viewing station," or call to receive the information, paying "$10 per call for up to two names." Only the more diligent and wealthy parent is likely to do so - and what about single working mothers who had no time to drop by the police station to view the CD-Rom?

California needs to simply put Megan's Law photos on the Internet as other states, including New York, have done, and make those photos easily accessible. For those who do not have Internet access, a photo collection should be available at the police station - but in a photo album, not in the CD-Rom format, which those who do not know how to use the Internet may balk at using.

How An Expanded Megan's Law Might Have Prevented the California Rape/Abductions

The California girls' abductor, Roy Ratliff, might also have been more quickly apprehended had Megan's Law been expanded to include prior charges of violent crimes and sex crimes, even if they had resulted in an acquittal, or were pending.

For Ratliff, unlike for Avila, deterrence might have been impossible. But that is only due to California's "three strikes" law, which could itself be revised by the legislature to deal with just this type of situation. Ratliff had two prior convictions. He was also wanted on charges based on allegations of a prior rape of a 19 year old relative in another California county. Under California law, conviction on the third charge would ensure life imprisonment.

Thus, already fleeing his "third strike," Ratliff had little incentive to change his mind and decide not to rape the girls he had abducted. He had even less incentive not to kill them girls after he had raped them in order to ensure they could not identify him. Indeed, that was what he had decided to do when the police interrupted him.

Without the "three strikes" law - that is, if offenders had at least the hope of early release or probation - deterrence might have been a real possibility. Already an ex-con, Ratliff was well aware what time in jail would be like. Posting his photo would have added to the hope of deterrence, since he would know parents and others could easily recognize him and potentially thwart his crimes.

Yet Megan's Law, as currently written, provides for putting Ratliff's information on the Internet only after he had been convicted on the prior rape charges, and not while there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. That needs to change.

As with Avila, Ratliff was ultimately caught (and killed in an exchange with police). The reason was California's version of "Amber Alert," named after a nine-year-old girl who was murdered in Texas.

Amber Alert allows very quick dissemination of information when minors are reported missing through radio, the Internet, and even electronic highway signs. (Amber Alert, too, should be amended: It currently covers only those under 18; why not those under 21 instead, or, indeed, everyone?)

In the California girls' case, Amber Alert publicized a description of the girls and of Ratliff's stolen car, a Ford Bronco. Animal control officer Bonnie Hernandez then spotted the Bronco. Thus the system, and Hernandez's alertness, saved the girls' lives - but only by the grace of a few minutes. They have recently said he had already begun a "countdown" to kill them. And sadly, it did not prevent their rapes - nor the continuing trauma the girls will suffer.

Ratliff's photo should have been on the Internet as soon as he faced rape charges, not just as soon as the girls were reported missing. By then, it was almost already too late.

Opposition to Megan's Law Is Not Primarily Based on Civil Liberties Concerns

They are making an error. In fact, Megan's Law, even in the expanded version I have proposed, is not a serious or especially troubling civil liberties violation. On the contrary, it can be argued to vindicate civil liberties.

After all, free speech - our core civil liberty - includes the right to receive public, non-confidential information. And Megan's Law enhances free speech by making public-but-difficult-to-access information, readily available.

Moreover this is properly public information. For a criminal - or someone who, like Ratliff, has skipped a court appearance on charges - to be able to invoke his privacy rights to cloak rape, molestation, or sexual assault would be absurd. Sex may be private; sexual assault and rape are not.

The victims' violations may be private. That argument is the reason, of course, that the California girls' names initially were not being mentioned, until they recently and admirably chose to go public with their stories. But the criminal's violative conduct is not private - to the contrary, it is a subject of intense public concern.

The Difficult Case of the Acquitted Defendant

What about someone who is acquitted? Does that person have a right to privacy in the information about the charges brought against him?

In other contexts, our society does not think so. Trial transcripts of witness testimony are still available even after an acquittal. And courtrooms are open to the public, despite the fact that the outcome of the trial - which may be an acquittal - is not yet known.

In these contexts, our society makes the call in favor of full disclosure, and against secrecy, even though it is predictable that some acquitted defendants will still suffer unhappy consequences from having the charges against them publicized.

Indeed, our society has generally made this call in favor of publicity of charges, indictments, and trials. Even if Martha Stewart is ultimately vindicated despite claims of insider trading, no one will pay her back for the losses to her company or her public image that are now occurring, or the expenses of the shareholder's suit recent brought based on these losses.

Even as policy judgments, they may well be wrong. These judgments favor rehabilitation of ex-cons even at risk to little girls and boys. And they deem deeming acquittals or dropped charges to be exonerations - rather than the lack of "beyond a reasonable doubt" proof or a witness brave enough to testify against a frightening defendant who has already assaulted her.

In truth, most people charged are charged with crimes for a reason - and the reason is that there is at least some evidence against them. In the end, the evidence may not be overwhelming, or even enough to convict. And strong, even overwhelming evidence may be marshaled on the defense side, too. But it all remains evidence - and evidence the public should know about and weigh on its own.

The Overstated Threat of Vigilanteism

What about the contention that those who have been acquitted should not be dogged by prior court proceedings, or may unfairly be the target of vigilanteism?

This is a serious, important argument. But empirically, it has not yet been borne out. Despite Megan's Law, we didn't have a rash of vigilanteism this summer against those convicted child molesters whose photos and addresses are currently on the Internet. Instead, we had a summer of molestation and rape, in several cases by men who had been previously charged and thus could have been put on a Megan's Law Internet registry if the law were expanded.

So which is the bigger problem: vigilanteism against ex-cons (or hypothetically, against those charged but acquitted), or the murder and rape of children and teenagers?

And if there isn't a pattern of vigilanteism against convicted child molesters whose pictures are on the Internet, why should we expect such a pattern against acquitted child molesters whose pictures appear there, too?

So far, the evidence shows that citizens can be expected to look at the photos, remember the faces, and maybe even show them to their children - but not to search out the culprits and act against them preemptively. In light of that, there's little good reason not to post more photos, even of those who were acquitted, faced dropped charges, or skipped court appearances resulting in a warrant for their arrest.

Women and Children Already Have Unequal Freedoms

Even before this summer, American women and children already lived in a world with far less freedom in it than the world American men occupy. They already had to choose carefully the places where, and hours when, they traveled; they were already forced to often continually look around to make sure they were safe.

They had already gotten used to terror, long before terrorism. For many women and children, solitude at night already meant danger, not freedom or contemplation or exploration as it might to men. The truth is that many women and children were in a state of alertness long before September 11.

Now it has only gotten worse. Samantha Runnion's mother has been brave to suggest that keeping children constantly indoors is not the solution. But other parents, after this summer, won't be as brave.

Parents will have to decide how much freedom to allow their children, and how much to withhold. They deserve to have as much information as possible about the threats to their children before they strike that balance. That is why Megan's Law should not only be continued, but expanded.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Currently a freelance writer, she published a memoir, The Bad Daughter, in 1998. Her first novel will be published in the U.S. in summer 2003 by Plume, and in French translation by Actes Sud.

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