Suit alleges California database violates law, prompted attacks

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An advocacy group is challenging California in a controversial lawsuit over a public sex offender database, claiming the state’s inaction has led to the fatal attacks of four individuals.

The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 10 by a pair of registered sex offenders and the advocacy group California Reform Sex Offender Laws, alleges that Attorney General Kamala Harris and the state’s Department of Justice have repeatedly failed to adequately update a website established to publish the names and locations of offenders, in violation of state and federal law. Now, they’re asking that a judge compel the state to fully revise the site, or shut down the database until the changes can be made.

The complaint charges that roughly 92 percent of offender profiles on the site “lack either the year of conviction or the year of release, or both, among other errors and omissions,” even though the department already has the necessary information to update the profiles.

The suit claims that the incomplete profiles prompted attacks on offenders by providing their exact locations without accurate information about the nature and recency of their convictions. It also argues the deficiency is in violation of a 2006 state law that stipulated that the site be completely updated by 2010. Additionally, the plaintiffs allege that the department is violating federal law by accepting federal funds to overhaul the database and then failing to do so.

The suit also claims that the department has “expended substantial taxpayer funds to modify and change the format of the website in trivial ways” yet still failed to address the outdated offender information.

“The real irony or the stupidity or extreme sadness of the situation is they have the information,” Janice Bellucci, president of the advocacy group, told StateScoop. “For whatever reason, one part of the agency can’t seem to communicate that information to the other part, which, quite frankly, is not our problem. Except they’ve made it our problem.”

Bellucci noted that her group wrote a letter to the department about these issues back in October 2013 and engaged in “informal talks” with state workers, but those efforts ultimately led nowhere.

“They never even bothered to reply to our letter,” Bellucci said. “At that point they were three years late, now they’re five years late, and it was just the time to take action.”

A department spokeswoman didn’t return multiple requests for comment on the suit’s claims.

As evidence of the detrimental effects of the website’s “incomplete and erroneous” information on offenders, the suit cites the cases of seven different people attacked based on their profiles on the database, including the two plaintiffs. The complaints includes descriptions of one offender who was killed after he was “stabbed 58 times” and another who died after he “was attacked by a stranger lying in wait who stabbed him more than 70 times.” The suit alleges that a lack of information about their release dates were factors in seven attacks, including four that were fatal.

Roy Matagora and Frank Lindsay, the plaintiffs in the suit, charge that they’ve not only been attacked as result of similar incomplete information on their profiles, but that it’s also made it incredibly difficult for them to find housing or employment.

Mark McBride, a defense attorney and certified criminal law specialist in California, believes the approach of drawing a direct line between the attacks and the database is a unique one.

“I don’t see them asking for any money, which makes it unique,” McBride said. “You have people taking a principled approach who are considered sex offenders.”

He questioned whether there was enough evidence for the complaint to hold, suggesting the state would likely argue, ” ‘Even if we didn’t do it correctly, we didn’t know it would lead to vigilantism.’”

Beyond the question of connecting vigilante violence to the site’s deficiencies, McBride said the suit’s claims present an “interesting double jeopardy” conundrum for the court to consider.

“These people have served hard time, and then their punishment continues,” McBride said. “They’re functionally banished from our society. We lock them up, and then when they get out, apparently that’s not good enough.”

Bellucci hopes to see the situation resolved as quickly possible for that exact reason. While the filing of the suit could spur the department into action, she expects not to see any results until a judge weighs in.

“They’ve haven’t been doing what they should be doing for so long that it’s hard to be optimistic that they’re going to, all of a sudden, wake up and say ‘Wow, we should do the right thing,’” Bellucci said.

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California, Public Safety, State & Local News, States
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