Registering as a Sex Offender

A sex offender registry is a database of information about convicted sex offenders to monitor and track them in the community. Law enforcement maintains it. Some sex offender registration information must be available to the public. This usually happens via public access sex offender websites.

Sex offender registries exist at the state and national level. The law, commonly known as Megan's Law, is what created the sex offender registries at the national level.

Each state has its sex offender registration laws. These laws set up registration requirements for offenders. This includes what registration information they must provide and how often they must appear and update their information in person. State law also identifies what information will be available to the public. It will also give a framework to direct police when other forms of community notification must happen.

As states began establishing their registries and public websites, they varied their requirements. In 2006, Congress passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) to strengthen the network of national registration and notification programs. SORNA sought to establish minimum standards for registration systems throughout the states. It set up a federal U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) office to help states with training and compliance. Yet, many states have fallen short of substantial implementation. Even states identified by the DOJ for substantial compliance have variations in their laws.

Who Must Register as a Sex Offender?

It depends on the law of the jurisdiction where the conviction happened. Federal convictions for sexual abuse crimes will follow the framework in SORNA. States that have adopted SORNA into their laws will do likewise. For other states, it will depend on the specifics of that state's law. Many states, consistent with SORNA, created registration requirements based on the name and type of sexual offense coming from the conviction. Some states, like New Jersey, combine information from the convicted offense and a risk assessment for individual sexual offenders.

Typically, a person convicted of certain sex offenses and other offenses against children must register as a sex offender. Each state will have its criteria for this. Typical crimes that lead to registration include:

  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Sexual battery
  • Statutory rape
  • Possession or distribution of child pornography
  • Child molestation
  • Child enticement
  • Child exploitation (such as using a minor in a lewd sexual performance)
  • Kidnapping with a sexual motivation
  • Sex trafficking
  • Nonconsensual sodomy and oral copulation
  • Indecent exposure

When the state law tracks the categories listed in federal law, there will be three tiers of offenders based on the severity of the conviction. Tier III offenders represent those believed to have the greatest risk for re-offense based on their convictions for sexual abuse, including offenses involving a child. This may include people with a previous sex offense conviction in their criminal records. Tier II offenders have convictions that often relate to the sexual exploitation of children but may not include sexual assault. Tier I offenders often have misdemeanor convictions or offense convictions that present the lowest risk to public safety. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, provide an accessible public list of offenses and associated tiers to help inform the public. Sex offender registration happens at the agency where the offender lives after release into the community. Depending on state law, it may be a local law enforcement agency such as a police department or a county sheriff's office. An offender must re-register every year (sometimes more frequently) and whenever they move. Failure to register as required is itself a criminal offense. State laws will differ on how often an offender must report and the penalty for non-compliance.

You can access links to Megan's Law resources for your state here.

What Information Must A Sex Offender Provide With Registration?

The information an offender must provide at registration may vary based on state law. SORNA provides a comprehensive list of sex offender information that police should get. It may include the following:

  • Name, including all aliases
  • Residential, work, and school addresses
  • Date of birth
  • Social Security number
  • Phone numbers
  • Internet addresses (including email)
  • Current photograph
  • Physical description
  • Vehicle information
  • Sex offense information
  • Fingerprints
  • DNA sample, and more

Some of this information will appear on the sex offender website, but not all will be available to the public.

The law sometimes requires an offender to register with law enforcement, but the information is not public. This most often occurs with Tier I offenders under SORNA or those deemed by a state to be a low risk for re-offense. States may provide a process where an offender can have their name removed from the registry after their reporting period has expired. State criteria may require that the offender show they have had no new offenses and are not likely to re-offend.

Where Can the Public Get Information about an Offender?

The DOJ hosts the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW). This website provides a useful "one-stop shop." It offers access to the public registry sites for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, five U.S. territories, and federally recognized Native American tribes. You can search in a specific jurisdiction. You may also run a national search that queries all the registries. You can run searches by name or zip code. Depending on the information provided by the jurisdiction, you can also search by address, county, or city.

States also host their own public websites. Sex offenders under registration requirements should appear on such websites. To search for an offender in prison, you'll likely have to search a separate offender website hosted by the state.

Disclaimer: No one will guarantee the accuracy of the information on a website, as police must update them frequently. If you have specific concerns, contact local law enforcement or an attorney.

What Information Can the Public Find About an Offender?

Registering as a sex offender will make certain information available to the public. The information available will vary by jurisdiction but often includes:

  • Name and aliases
  • Current home, work, and school address
  • Offense(s) information
  • Current photograph
  • Physical description
  • Vehicle information

The website may also provide other information on an offender. SORNA sets a base (or floor) for state laws. States can go above it and provide more information.

States will also set up their own protocols for community notification about high-risk offenders. For example, in New Jersey, notice of Tier I offenders goes to all law enforcement statewide. The information goes beyond law enforcement into the community for Tier II and Tier III offenders. Notice of Tier II offenders will also go to schools, licensed daycare facilities, summer camps, and registered community organizations. Notice of Tier III offenders will go to those same parties plus members of the public. Those living in the same neighborhood as Tier III offenders get a personal notice from a law enforcement representative.

How Long Must a Sex Offender Register?

The length of a sex offender's registration period will depend on their classification under state law. In New Jersey, all sex offenders begin with lifetime registration. They may file a motion in court seeking removal from the registry after 15 years if they have only committed one offense and have no new crimes. They must also convince the court that they are not likely to re-offend. A juvenile under 14 years of age at the time of the crime can file to get removed once they are 18.

Under SORNA and many states, a Tier I offender must register for 15 years (but this may end at 10 years if they maintain a clean record). Tier II offenders file for 25 years. Tier III offenders have a lifetime registration requirement. In contrast, under California law, a California sex offender in Tier I must register for 10 years. A Tier II offender must register for 20 years. A Tier III sex offender must register for life. (See California Penal Code Section 290.)

Do State Laws Place Other Restrictions on Sex Offenders?

The short answer is yes. Many states and localities have passed residency restrictions on sex offenders. These laws may ban registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, playground, or park. Some states bar sex offenders from loitering near areas where children congregate. Private theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios are private businesses. They may ban sex offenders or others with certain criminal convictions. If a state law also applies, a park can eject a patron and refer them to the police.

States have also enacted laws related to holidays popular with children. For example, many states have Halloween sex offender laws to prevent children from visiting the home of a sex offender for "trick or treat." Some may question the effectiveness of such laws. But courts often uphold these laws.

What Is the National Sex Offender Registry?

Although it's not viewable by the public, the National Sex Offender Registry is a national database for law enforcement only. Maintained by the FBI, the registry tracks information for the following:

  • Those convicted for a criminal offense against a minor
  • Those convicted for a sexually violent offense
  • Those designated as a sexually violent predator

Local police may contact the FBI and access the database when conducting an investigation to track the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. The national registry will have more information on offenders that may not appear on public registries. This may include an offender's Social Security number, passport information, phone numbers, and internet identifiers.

More Questions About Sex Offender Registration? Get Help from an Attorney

Sex crimes often carry severe penalties. If you get convicted of an offense requiring registration with your state, you must ensure you meet all your legal obligations. Failure to do so can be a separate criminal violation. It could land you back in prison. To learn more about the laws in your state and the requirements that may apply in your situation, speak with a local criminal defense attorney.

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