When it comes to sex offender restrictions, some legislatures have taken unusual steps to either ban registrants entirely from the internet or restrict access to various social platforms. Convicted sex offenders aren’t allowed to use Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat as per terms of service. As Facebook acquires, monopolizes, and removes registrants from its platform, it will have attributed a significant increase in national unemployment numbers of registrants and their families by millions. Denying a right to social media is equal to not providing the tools in a modern age required for industry or the resources of livelihood to pay bills or other online needs. If that isn’t bad enough, some registrants are listed for a lifetime depending on the crime. Some may argue that “removal from the registry will restore accesses to social media because requirements are no longer applicable.” However, Facebook and other company policies that align with banning sex registrants from its platforms are permanent and not subject to state or federal laws and guidelines. This argument extends to juveniles released from sex offender requirements and those pardoned, expunged, or sealed by judicial systems. Facebook and other companies policies are vividly clear that a news article is enough incrimination to remove an individual.
The war on sex offenders and compliance requirements is an easy sell by politicians, victim organizations, and community groups. When it comes to crime legislation, there will be a contemptuous and unfactual way to identify sex registrants in neighborhoods and suburbs as the most deviant and scheming to harm children. Police resources are no longer able to target meth labs, organized crime networks, or child victims of disturbing home abuses. Its officer priorities are socially motivated and influenced by media and civic crazed panic. There will always be highly charged rhetoric about stopping opioid, recreational drugs, guns, heroin, and meth creeping into neighborhoods accessible to youth and destroying families. But registrants are falsely portrayed as a threat to communities, social media, and public spaces are the modern day monster story with dishonest messages that raise unnecessary alarms.
The State of North Carolina recently passed Senate Bill 199 named Child Sex Abuse/Strengthen Laws. The bill passed the Senate overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. However, the bill criminalizes citizens and organizations that fail to immediately report a suspicion that a juvenile is or could be abused. (§ 14-318.6) Listed in the bill directs any person that suspects or witnesses an act where a child could be at risk for physical injury to be notified and identified by law enforcement immediately. That’s right. There are no anonymity provisions for those that initiate reporting to authorities. Witnesses are required to provide full name, address, and telephone number. Therefore, if at a local big box store an individual witnesses a spanking of a child then it’s either the responsibility of the store or witness to contact law enforcement immediately because of the suspicion rule mentioned in the bill. While the bill is attempting to target dangerous conditions, its ambiguous wording allows an opening for many scenarios to be weaponized either by law enforcement or people. Essentially the bill, if it becomes law, will arm businesses and people to act on suspicion or it may criminalize those that fail to become involved if discovered during an ongoing investigation. It creates an attack on the Good Faith law and muliplies situations similar to “BBQ Becky” reportings.
In part three of the bill, (§ 15-1) it increases the statutes of limitations from two years to ten years for misdemeanor crimes against children. This is where the law while intended to target serious offenses becomes diluted to include adults that feel or believe they were physically abused or felt in danger as a child. This will lead to prosecution of family members, coaches, educators, bullies, former friends, or anyone accused of abuse. This portion of the bill generates a possibility by the defense exploiting an emotionally filled victim impact statement whereas defendants are unable to recognize or contribute plausible evidence. The amendment provision appears to be driven by social media and external influencers to align with the popularity of timetable expansions for statutes of limitations in an ex post facto manner. There is no proof or data to suggest an urgency to amend this part of the law by citizens of North Carolina. It facilitates an avenue to further clog the legal system with frivolous actions of child disciplining by parents viewed as criminal behavior.
Part Four, (§ 14-202.5) bizarrely named Protecting Children Online From High-Risk Sex Offenders is perhaps the most negligently researched bill introduced in the history of North Carolina legislative cataloging. The bill mentions High-Risk sex offenders who are not a classification to be found within North Carolina law. (§ 14-208.6 Definitions of Offender Types). That implies the state must introduce a new tier rating system to separate high-risk from low-risk. But with this law, it would eliminate the tier system by classifying all registrants as high-risk without any due process. According to the bill, a High-Risk offender is those found guilty of sex with anyone under the age of 18 or other sexual offenses requiring registration. Should the bill become law it would include nearly 92% of the 17,840 or more registrants listed on the North Carolina registry.
Let’s be crystal clear that the bill is a sleight-of-hand tactic to eventually deem anyone on the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry as a High-Risk offender.
Part Four also includes provisions that would prohibit high-risk offenders from contact with a person believed to be under the age of 16. There are several dilemmas about that particular part of the bill in direct conflict with current North Carolina law. First, there are several laws on the books covering contact with a minor for exploitative purposes. (§ 14-190.13) However, those particular laws clearly state that a minor is anyone under the age of 18. Additionally, it says, “Mistake of age is not a defense to a prosecution under this section.” For example, a 17-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old would not constitute grounds for criminal prosecution under North Carolina’s statutory rape laws because the state’s Romeo and Juliet clause pertaining to sex between consenting minors. But sexting is another issue vigorously pursued by law enforcement. But any communication by a juvenile registrant could be charged with a felony for contacting someone his/her own age. There are no statutes of limitations for any felony committed in North Carolina. “The internet is forever” chat logs with allegations twenty years later by a victim will keep not only registrants but the public afraid to use the internet or phone for fear of unintended reprisal.
Current Facebook policy requires its members to be at least 13 years of age. However, other native mobile apps require enrollment age at 18 based with little to no verification processes. Some apps are sexually suggestive in nature and are accessed by youth for reasons of curiosity or an aura of imaginary maturity. The uncertain risk that youth undertake with electronic devices isn’t the same as attempts to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, or other age restricted materials. It’s more serious and states do very little to address the issue. Society has quickly evolved in an online world where all facets of daily life surround around technology and electronic communications. While there are current laws that prohibit the manufacturing of fictitious identification (§ 18B-302(e)), there are equally laws with provisions that prohibit accessing a computer by false or fraudulent pretenses. (§ 14-454(a)(2)). It appears that lawmakers are adding confusion by creating choices for law enforcement and bargaining chips for prosecutor plea deals.
If a person under the age of 16 engages on the internet, application, or smart device with someone that happens to be a registered offender, regardless of age, there are no laws that require that individual to identify themselves as a registrant. Just as there are no laws requiring a person to state his/her age. However, if the parties engaged are in communications without voluntarily disclosing age, it becomes a vague statute. An example, highly likely to occur, could be where a parent or concerned individual intercepts a device of a young person. That individual discovers nothing illicit but learns the other person is a registrant and notifies authorities. During a preliminary investigation, all relevant age information is visible on another restricted or banned website registrants are unable to access to determine age verification. Is the registrant in violation because he/she believed the other person was of age with no way to verify it? It leaves many open-ended questions and serious concerns for anyone subject to this particular portion of the law. If the state lays claim to protect children and strengthen laws, then why not create a provision where online businesses must confirm and verify birthdate data? This is no differently than physical businesses that require ID for cigarettes, alcohol or other age-restricted materials? This is an attempt by lawmakers to intimidate registrants from being on the internet.
Finally, part 4 of the bill section will criminally charge a felony to any high-risk offender that uses a website where its policy specifically bans sex offenders. Let’s go back to the drawing board for this one. Who on earth reads the fine print of a service agreement when accessing an account? Not many. It is usually a quick click through. However, what will occur if a popular website or application determines that those on the registry are no longer welcome and updates silently its user agreement? How will registrants be notified? Better yet; will registrants be hauled in by police without knowledge of either the law, existing policy or future policy and its consequences? This isn’t an attempt to protect children. This is a blatant action by the state to reclaim its stinging loss in the United State Supreme Court case Packingham v. North Carolina. It is nothing more than creating a constructive action against registrants creating confusion and intimidation tactics.
Part 4 Section 4(c) of the bill may become confusing to some and disturbing to any business, corporation, or educational institution. It requires all internet protocol (IP) address by residence or employer within three days. Additionally, Section 4(e) requires all IP addresses for registrants attending a college or university within three days. It should be essential to mention that failing to do so in three days will result in felony charges against the registrant. Here are several problems with this particular part of the bill. First, what average person understands how to capture an IP address? Is the information requirement an IPv4 address or IPv6 address? Second, most subscribers have high-speed internet services which use a DHCP process. That means an internet IP address called dynamic IP addressing is commonly used. Therefore, if a registrant using, let’s say Spectrum Internet, reports to his/her local sheriff a particular IP address it won’t be the same when they return home. That is because dynamic IP addressing can change or often changes. The only way to capture a correct and valid reportable IP address is to purchase a static IP address from a service provider. Not many people can afford, in addition to Internet Service Providers (ISP) sometimes do not offer static IP addresses. It will be a nightmare for both law enforcement and registrants to maintain information that doesnt offer stability or simple methods to report accurately with often will raise a Forth Amendment challenge to probable cause. Once more, there are no instructions provided to registrants in how IP addressing or online identifyers are supposed to be reported. Each of the 100 county sheriffs in the state has their own “homemade form” often creating a forced signature of complance statement and violation of Fifth Amendment rights. (see form below)
Current North Carolina law directs law enforcement that anyone listed on the sex offender registry is required to physically verify the home and workplace address of a registrant bi-annually. What is currently deemed by law as a Sexually Violent Predator are verified every ninety days. Some Sherrif Departments in North Carolina responsible for the registrants living in their county increase the number of required visits from monthly to when as necessary depending on how that department utilizes and budgets its resources. It is terrible enough for registrants to endure embarrassing situations where a deputy repeatedly arrives in a neighborhood to knock on the door of a home to physically check if a registrant lives there. Neighbors often are curious if something additional has occurred. But when a deputy checks a business, then a majority of employees are equally interested in why deputies arrived at a workplace to ask questions about a fellow employee. This law will create not only another embarrassing way but add an additional check to verify IP internet addresses every six months or more. This isn’t a model where deputies confirm with human resources, coworker, or neighbor. These are physical checks by deputies in full uniform on a premise where no crime has been committed. It presents a method of extended guilt of past, current and future criminal activities of any registrant utilizing costly and unnecessary law enforcement resources.
If you know nothing about Virtual Private Networks (VPN), then you may be in for a quick education. VPN’s are widely accessible and allow individuals to mask IP addressing for cybersecurity reasons. The premise for VPN is to enable employees to telecommute while the network “thinks” the computer resides at the company or organization. Additionally, VPN’s are easy to install and highly encouraged by cybersecurity professionals. If a business or family use a VPN then the IP information may show the user in Germany, California, Istanbul, or anywhere the VPN continuously relocates to avoiding hacking detection. Does that imply that if authorities stumble upon an investigation of a registrant that they are out of compliance for being in a country without notifying movement but never left home? VPN data is often top secret and proprietary by companies. Relinquishing VPN based IP data will eventually harm businesses that rely upon its secrecy of where cloud servers are maintained and located in various nations. Businesses will ultumately not allow this information to be shared with governments. Will companies, because of North Carolina IP rules, begin banning sex offenders or other crimes from hiring opportunties down the road? The law provides a certain opening for that to occur.
There is also a little wording in the bill that says, “law only applies to registrants with an ISP account in their name.” That is very important because it may relieve families from having to disclose IP addresses. But don’t count on it. Law enforcement will find an interpretive way to intimidate families or roommates into submitting information they don’t have to provide. Why the double standard that businesses must provide IP data when registrants don’t pay for company internet services? To add more complications what if a registrant lives in a metropolitan area that offers free-wifi because he/she due to unemployability cannot afford internet services? Does this law suggest that registrants go to the city IT department and suddenly begin asking for municiple IP addresses? It may sound like a stretch of the imagination. But these are the very requirements that law enforcement will weaponize to discourage registrants from the internet. Law enforcement has a long-standing practice to disregard the spirit of the law to frighten and control others, mainly registrants, with jail or prison. It is wrong, but often nobody listens to the families of sex offenders.
If you are a business, hold on to your hats. Giving up your business IP addresses isn’t as simple as you may think? For example, if a registrant works as a network server technician, then count on a minimum of 20 or so typed pages of IP addresses – for that particular day only. It gets more complicated for registrants that work in the telephony field. If they work with optical carriers, then deputies will surely be angry when they see a stack of papers with 400 or more pages of IP addresses per page – front and back. It may sound like a far fetched theory, but it is highly possible. Imagine a deputy in a small county with limited resources entering IP data from a handwritten form filled with IP addresses to enter one by one? Whoever wrote this bill, couldn’t have had any input from law enforcement or knowledge about how internet protocols work? Perhaps there was an influence on lawmakers by a state agency that wants a backdoor opening to target the poor? All this part of the bill does it target the poor and those without technical knowledge to navigate basic computing.
But what happens to those massive amounts of IP data stored about people and businesses? What are the liabilities the state is willing to assume if those IP addresses are compromised because of a law it drafted without protections? What if a business identifies a threat, but it is the state attempting to peek into a computer without a warrant? If the company alerts The National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) which is under Homeland Security? Naturally, there will be many lawyers and legal filings for breach of networks without authorization not to mention men in dark suits with federal badges and guns asking state agents lots of questions. Or is there a constructive method allowing human resources employees conveniently discharging anyone convicted of a sex crime because it would be a burden to report IP requirements continually to law enforcement? What implications are businesses responsible for allowing sensitive IP addresses to a government agency for a registrant not on probation and where a company refuses to relinquish saying, “no warrant, no search?” It puts the registrant in the crosshairs of potentially severe felony charges; not the business. Many scholars suggest that North Carolina asking for business cybersecurity information may violate the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Addionally, it may be violating a significant amount of laws both state and federal.
Overall, this is a bad bill and an awfully confusing law for many. It does nothing to protect children. Instead, it harms families, businesses, employment opportunities, and job statistics. Harming 17,000+ registrants from the internet also suggests 85,000+ or more families could be impacted by this carelessly written and crudely researched law. If passed, it will ultimately return to the courts and rendered far overreaching as it was once before. It creates new legal challenges from cybersecurity providers, businesses, municipalities, AT&T, Verizon, Spectrum, satellite companies, router manufacturers, computing companies, and perhaps Google, Apple, and Microsoft. This bill, if passed, could cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees also a significant impact on the future of attracting and retaining businesses to the state. Essentially, companies can exclaim they are the ones being molested without consent!
Lastly, this bill harms law enforcement and the people of North Carolina. Additionally, it demonstrates a significant injustice for an inconsequential offense that may have occurred decades ago where both sides have agreed to move on. This law serves just the beginning as a threat to the future justice reforms legislation. If sex offenders are the target today, who will be added as time progresses? While it may have good intentions to protect children, it didn’t provide a data-proven comparitive analysis that it works. Instead, the bill was introduced from external influencers and outside fear based organizations blackmailing politicians rather than listening the people of North Carolina. If passed into law, this will undoubtedly create hostilities for businesses, citizens, and law enforcement to engage together. Its vague language establishes a police state where people are mandated to report under the face of being hauled to jail for not relaying his/her suspicions. It is bad enough that citizens fail to engage in civic duties. This law ensures they stay far away from it or other situations.
For general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice