A federal judge in San Francisco heard arguments but made no immediate ruling Monday on a bid to block a voter initiative’s mandate that California’s 73,000 registered sex offenders must disclose their online screen names and Internet service providers to police.
“I will be coming out with a ruling as quickly as I can,” U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson told lawyers for two offenders, the state and the measure’s sponsors after hearing two hours of arguments on the offenders’ motion for a preliminary injunction.
The challenged mandate is part of Proposition 35, a ballot initiative intended to crack down on sex trafficking. It was approved by 81 percent of state voters in November.
Two anonymous offenders and a group called California Reform Sex Offender Laws say the requirement, encompassing the offenders’ use of discussion blogs, social media, e-mail and other Internet sites, violates their constitutional rights to free speech and due process.
“Our essential arguments are that this law is far too broad, sweeps in far too many people and sweeps in far too many types of Internet use,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Michael Risher told Henderson.
“It’s also impossibly vague,” Risher said.
Supervising Deputy California Attorney General Robert Wilson, defending the law, argued that the requirement will help officers find online predators and is a minimal addition to the identification information already required of registered offenders.
“The purpose is to be able to find somebody if we need to,” Wilson contended.
The disclosure requirement “is nothing more than another location-information tool that law enforcement can use,” he said.
“The burden on the registrants is negligible. We’re talking about filling in two blanks on a four-page form they already have to fill out,” Wilson told Henderson.
In a brief filed last month, Wilson wrote, “Possession of this information may provide enough of a head start to save a victim’s life.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by lawyers from the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the morning after the Nov. 6 election.
Later on Nov. 7, Henderson granted their request for a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the law until he has ruled on the preliminary injunction request.
The judge wrote in that order that the plaintiffs had raised “serious questions” about whether the requirement violated their free speech and other constitutional rights.
If granted, a preliminary injunction would remain in effect until a full trial on the plaintiffs’ civil rights lawsuit.
The lawsuit does not challenge other sections of Proposition 35 that increase sentences and fines for people convicted of sex trafficking.
The registered offenders who filed the lawsuit used the pseudonyms of John Doe, described as a 75-year-old Alameda man, and Jack Roe, described as a former California resident who wants to return to the state.
The third plaintiff, California Reform Sex Offender Laws, claims the requirement will prevent registrants from exercising their right to comment anonymously on the group’s law-reform discussion blog without fear of retribution or harassment.
The named defendants are California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is responsible for protecting state laws, and the city of Alameda.
Henderson said today he is inclined to grant a request by the initiative’s sponsors to become official parties in the case to join Harris in defending the measure.
The sponsors are Chris Kelly, a former Facebook chief privacy officer, and Daphne Phung, the founder of a group called Californians Against Slavery.
Their lawyers argued in papers last month that the previous registration requirements “have become inadequate as human traffickers increasingly turn to the Internet as a forum to literally buy and sell children and vulnerable women.”
The new provision gives law enforcement “a powerful tool to combat this threat,” they contended.
Harris’s office has told the judge that authorities won’t be in a position to enforce the disclosure requirement until March.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News