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Sex Offenses Law

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What is a Sex Offender?

As movements like #MeToo gain steam and people become increasingly aware of what's going on in society, sex crimes are receiving renewed attention. Although most people are aware that sex offenders need to register themselves, they may not know exactly how the process works.

What Is a Sex Offender?

Sex crimes are offenses that are sexual in nature. All of these crimes should be treated with equal consideration and care because of how they traumatize and injure victims. The law classifies individual actions under different misdemeanor and felony statuses due to their perceived severity and victim impacts.

Sex offenders include anyone who was:

  • Adjudicated, or formally judged, as a juvenile delinquent or youthful offender for a sex crime
  • Accused, tried, and convicted of any level of sex offense
  • Released from civil psychiatric commitment, custody, probation, parole, or youth custody for a sex crime conviction or adjudication
  • Classified as a sexually dangerous person because he or she attempted to molest children or perform violent sexual acts

Important Sex Offender Laws

Federal law defines many sex crimes, including rape and sexual assault, in 10 U.S. Code § 920. This law also includes important concepts that help guide courts and officials about whether offenses that aren't explicitly listed might also count as sex crimes. For instance:

  • Sexual contact can be the act of touching someone sexually, but it can also be the act of causing someone to make sexual contact with another person.
  • Consent must be given freely and explicitly for individual events. It doesn't matter whether the parties involved had a prior relationship or the victim didn't actively deny or resist sexual activity.
  • By law, certain people cannot consent, such as those who are sleeping, unconscious, drug-impaired, or mentally incompetent. Sexual acts committed upon these people are sexual assaults.
  • Sex acts performed by people who falsely claim that the activity fulfills professional purposes are sexual assaults.

Another critical federal statute is the 2006 Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA. This law was instituted to help reduce the chances that sex offenders might find loopholes. It also instituted new rules regarding the registration of and notification about sex offenders.

Who Has to Register?

Under SORNA, sex offenders need to register in official sex offender databases connected to the national sex offender registration system whenever they:

  • Attend an educational institution
  • Gain employment
  • Move to a new jurisdiction

Neglecting to register or update existing registrations in line with the SORNA requirements is a federal offense that may carry penalties of up to a decade of imprisonment or fines. Someone who fails to register or update his or her information and then commits a violent federal crime might risk a 30-year prison sentence if convicted. Sex offenders can also be prosecuted for failing to register or update their information and then traveling internationally, across state lines, or on Indian reservations.

How Does Registration Work?

Even though SORNA is a federal law, it focuses on creating more general standards and guidelines for others to follow. The bulk of the work involved in creating, operating, and maintaining sex offender registry and database programs is left to lower-level bodies, such as the individual states, Indian tribal governments, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia.

As a result, different regions may maintain varying requirements for people who have to register as sex offenders. For instance, in the state of Washington, people have to register before beginning college classes or working. They also have to register when their job or schooling ends. The state requires:

  • Names and aliases
  • Date and place of birth
  • Social security numbers
  • Fingerprints and photographs
  • Information about the sex crime the registrant was convicted of, including when and where the conviction occurred
  • Vehicle descriptions and license plate numbers
  • Place and nature of employment
  • Information about where the registrant plans to stay or his or her complete, up-to-date residential address

Depending on the crime someone commits, he or she may also be asked to provide a DNA sample. Refusing to do so could count as a misdemeanor. These laws may also apply to kidnapping offenders.

Other State and Federal Differences

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act that gave rise to SORNA defines three sex offender classifications known as tiers.

Tier III is reserved for offenders convicted of crimes that are punishable by more than one year of imprisonment even if they didn't receive that sentence. These crimes must be at least as severe as the sexual abuse of or sexual contact with minors below the age of 13, certain non-parental kidnapping acts, and sex crimes committed by someone who already reached Tier II status. Tier III requires lifelong registration.

Tier II offenders have also committed crimes punishable by more than one year in prison. These crimes often relate to child pornography, performance, or prostitution. Tier II also applies to violations at least as severe as sex trafficking, sexual abuse, sexual coercion or enticement, and offenses committed after Tier I convictions. Convicts must register on sex offender lists for 25 years.

Tier I offenders don't fall into Tier II or Tier III. They have to register for 15 years.

Individual states also have their own schemes. For instance, Massachusetts defines three levels based on offenders' perceived danger to the public and risk of re-offending. Someone's level of classification may also determine whether his or her information is publicly available.

Sex crimes have different meanings in different jurisdictions. Those who have been the victim of a sex crime or accused of a sex crime may benefit from speaking with a knowledgeable attorney.