Sexually Violent Offender Registration Requirements: The Impact of Jacob Wetterling

In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped while walking with two other children on a street near his home. Twenty-seven years later, authorities found Jacob's body 30 miles away from where he was last seen. This chilling child abduction case led to important changes to sex offender registration laws.

This article discusses the Jacob Wetterling case and its impact on laws related to the registration of sex offenders, including Megan's Law and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

The Abduction of Jacob Wetterling

Around 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1989, Jacob Wetterling; his younger brother, Trevor; and their friend Aaron Larson were walking their bikes down a dead-end road in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Jacob and Trevor's parents were visiting friends, and the boys had gone to a nearby convenience store to rent a movie.

Suddenly, a masked man holding a gun emerged from a deserted field nearby and stopped the boys. He ordered them to lie facedown in a nearby ditch. He asked each of them how old they were. Trevor responded that he was 10, and the other two boys were 11.

The man told Trevor to run to the woods and not look back. He then told Aaron to do the same. He threatened to shoot them if they didn't leave Jacob behind. That was the last time anyone saw Jacob alive.

For almost 27 years, Jacob Wetterling's case went unsolved.

The Investigation

Authorities encountered a lot of dead ends while investigating Jacob Wetterling's disappearance. Because the abductor wore a mask, the other two boys could not describe his face. A faint tire mark from the scene turned out to match a vehicle unrelated to the case.

Officials looked to similar child sex crimes in the area for possible connections. One such case was an incident in Cold Spring, Minnesota, that took place just a few months earlier, about 12 miles away.

In 2014, a cold case review by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) led authorities to look closer at a longtime person of interest, Daniel Heinrich. FBI investigators questioned Heinrich shortly after Jacob's disappearance in 1989, but there wasn't enough evidence to charge him at the time.

In 2012, though, investigators matched DNA taken from Heinrich to evidence in the Cold Spring case. By that time, many believed the assault in Cold Spring, Jacob's kidnapping, and several other incidents in the area were connected.

Authorities searched Heinrich's home. They found child sexual abuse materials (child pornography) and filed federal charges against him. And he once again became a person of interest in the Jacob Wetterling case.

Heinrich eventually confessed to abducting, assaulting, and killing Jacob Wetterling. He agreed to tell the police where he buried the boy's body in exchange for a plea deal. Police located and positively identified Jacob's remains on Sept. 6, 2016.

The Impact of the Jacob Wetterling Case

Before the Jacob Wetterling case, the FBI's National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was the leading resource for criminal investigations involving children. The agency maintained a nationwide database of missing children.

Yet only a handful of states collected information on sex offenders. Law enforcement in most states, including Minnesota, had no list of registered sex offenders. There was also no federal law that required monitoring of people convicted of sexual offenses.

In 1990, Jacob's parents founded the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. The center aimed to educate the public on preventing child abduction and molestation. They also lobbied lawmakers to enact policies that did more to track sex offenders. The Minnesota Legislature responded quickly, passing a law creating a sex offender registry in 1991.

The federal government soon followed. In 1994, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. The law was part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The Jacob Wetterling Act accomplished the following:

  • Created a minimum standard for states to record sex offenders, which led to the development of state-specific registration information and community notification
  • Created a higher class of offenses for "sexually violent predators" (SVPs)
  • Mandated current address verification for SVPs every 90 days and yearly for all other offenders, ensuring that registered sex offenders update their current addresses in the national database
  • Mandated the registration of SVPs for life and other offenders for 10 years
  • Provided optional public notification procedures when needed to ensure the public's safety

Two years later, the Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act created a national sex offender registry. The FBI uses this registry to distribute information about sex offenders to federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Other Laws Passed to Protect Children

The Jacob Wetterling Act paved the way for other related laws, including Megan's Law and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

Megan's Law

The Jacob Wetterling Act created standards for registering sex offenders, but this information was generally only available to law enforcement. Megan's Law, named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, requires authorities to make information about registered sex offenders available to the public.

New Jersey passed the first version of Megan's Law in 1994. Other states soon passed similar laws. In 1996, the federal version of the law passed as an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Act.

Under Megan's Law, if a “high-risk" sex offender moves into a neighborhood, law enforcement must notify the people living nearby. These notices usually include the offender's:

  • Name
  • Photo
  • Address
  • Convicted offense
  • Dates of incarceration

Authorities might post this information on social media sites, distribute flyers, or publish it in local newspapers.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act

President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act into law in 2006. The law is named after 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a shopping mall in Florida in 1981. Authorities recovered his remains two weeks later.

The Adam Walsh Act organizes sex offenses into three tiers. It imposes different registration requirements based on the severity of the crime:

  • Tier 1: Misdemeanor sex offenses presenting the lowest risk to public safety. Offenders must update their registration every year for 15 years.
  • Tier 2: More serious offenses, usually those that involve the exploitation of children. Offenders must update their registration every six months for 25 years.
  • Tier 3: Those convicted of sexual abuse and believed to be at the highest risk of reoffending. Offenders must update their registration every three months for life.

This legislation also included the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). SORNA enhanced the federal standards for registration and notification concerning sex offenders and sexual predators by:

  • Establishing a new minimum standard of registration and notification about convicted sex offenders
  • Including the 212 federally recognized Indian tribes in the definition of "jurisdiction" (out of 212 jurisdictions, 199 decided to establish their own systems of registration and notification of sex offenders)
  • Expanding the list of sex offenses that the registration jurisdictions should cover
  • Mandating the re-registration of sexual offenders who have a new address

SORNA also created the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) within the U.S. Department of Justice.

SMART administers the standards for registration information and community notification of sex offenders. The SMART office also provides technical assistance to designated state law enforcement agencies.

Anyone convicted of a sex crime who fails to follow the registration requirements may face a fine or additional criminal charges.

The Role of the Attorney General

Most prosecutions occur under state law. However, the U.S. attorney general plays a crucial role in enforcing registration laws for sex offenders. The attorney general acts in collaboration with local law enforcement agencies. Together, they periodically verify the accuracy of the registration records and ensure their enforcement.

In some cases, the attorney general may notify the public of registered sex offenders.

Need Legal Help?

Jacob Wetterling's case profoundly impacted laws related to state registration programs and sexually violent offenses. However, most crimes against children are committed by someone they know. If you believe a child close to you has been taken or harmed, contact law enforcement immediately. A family law attorney in your area can help you file for an order of protection or seek other civil remedies.

If you face criminal charges or need help understanding the impact of a sex crime conviction, contact a criminal defense attorney.

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