OKLAHOMA CITY — Attorneys for three convicted sex offenders who are challenging Oklahoma's sex offender registry laws told the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday that the regulations are being applied retroactively, which makes them unconstitutional.
Attorneys Jim Drummond, of Norman, and John Dunn, of Tulsa, urged the state's highest court to keep the state from placing their clients' names on the registry. An attorney for the state, Senior Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader, urged the nine-member court to uphold the rules, saying residents need to know whether convicted sex offenders are living in their neighborhoods.
"Give us as much protection as possible," Leader said. "The children and the citizens of this state deserve no less."
Drummond represents two men who claim they are exempt from the state's sex offender registry rules because their crimes pre-date the creation of the registry in November 1989.
Joseph Hendricks was convicted of the Oklahoma equivalent of lewd or indecent acts with a child in California in 1982. He moved from California to Oklahoma in 2009. The second man, Michael Bollin, was convicted of an unspecified sex offense in Missouri in 1987 and has lived in Oklahoma since June 2004.
Dunn's client, James Starkey, pled no contest to sexual assault on a minor child in Texas in 1998 and received a deferred sentence. When he moved to Oklahoma later that year, the law required him to register as a sex offender for 10 years. The law has since been changed to require longer registration.
In an unrelated case, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in 2010 that sex offender registration laws could only be applied going forward. The court said defendants should get the benefit of laws that existed at the time of their sentencing and not face punishments that were added later.
Drummond and Dunn told the state Supreme Court that this is what is happening with the sex offender registry. People convicted of certain sex offenses in Oklahoma before 1989 don't have to register, but those convicted in other states do if they moved to Oklahoma later.
"Is this regarded as punishment?" Dunn said. "We believe the act is punitive in nature."
Justices peppered the attorneys with questions during their oral presentations and several alluded to the seriousness of the issues the registry represents.
"This is an issue of statewide public concern," Vice-Chief Justice John Reif of Skiatook said. "We're struggling to find the best answer."
Responding to one question, Drummond said the state has a legitimate public safety concern in alerting citizens about the presence of convicted sex offenders. But, he said, neither of his clients has re-offended since they moved to Oklahoma and "have been good citizens."
"They have not offended in decades," he said. "They are not people we need to protect ourselves from."
Drummond also argued that the sex offender statutes are unconstitutional because they single out a small class of people for special treatment.
Leader said the court has the ability to overturn portions of the law it finds unconstitutional without invaliding the entire registration process.
"Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," Leader said. "We're trying to protect the citizens of Oklahoma."
As attorneys spoke in the courtroom at the State Capitol, about a dozen protesters, several with young children, stood on the Capitol's south steps and urged the court to keep the registration requirements in place.
"If you let all these sex offenders off the list, they won't have to follow the safety zone laws that keep them from being near schools or driving ice cream trucks or being a volunteer on school field trips," Liz Reece of Lawton said.
"I think we need to protect the public as well as our kids," she added. "The fact is, they committed a crime against the public, and they could reoffend."