A man has succeeded in forcing the state to remove his name from its sex offender database after years of litigation, prompting advocates for more-forgiving sex offender laws to lobby for hundreds of others with similar circumstances to get off the registry, too.
The state had kept Robert Merle Haines Jr.'s name on the list for months, in defiance of a March ruling from the state's highest court that said that it should be removed.
Haines pleaded guilty in 2006 to one count of child sex abuse committed in 1984, when he was a junior high school teacher in Washington County. But the Court of Appeals ruled that Haines, 53, should not be on the sex offender registry because it did not exist at the time of his crime. The court said his registration would be a form of retroactive punishment, which the Maryland Constitution doesn't allow.
After Haines filed a petition asking a Circuit Court judge to hold the state corrections department in contempt, officials removed Haines' name from the registry on May 28.
Like Haines, an estimated 1,800 sex offenders listed in the public database were convicted of sex crimes committed before the registry was created, said Rick Binetti, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Advocates for more-forgiving sex offender laws say the high court ruling should free other ex-convicts from the registry.
But the state doesn't view the ruling in a broad context.
"We will review any similar situations on a case-by-case basis," Binetti said.
Haines, identified in court filings only as "John Doe," received permission in 2009 from an Anne Arundel circuit judge to file the suit under a pseudonym. His attorney, Nancy S. Forster, who acknowledged that Haines is John Doe, said she has sought to protect her client from being further ostracized and treated as a pariah.
Forster, Maryland's former chief public defender, said being on the registry has proven to be punishment in addition to the prison time he served. "He struggles to find employment," she said. "The only employment that he can find is usually something very menial, and even then, once they discover he's on the registry, he loses that job as well."
Forster could not be reached for comment following the removal of Haines' name.
Brenda Jones, executive director of Families Advocating Intelligent Registries, hailed the decision to remove his name from the registry. Her group opposes against what it calls "draconian" sexual offense laws and policies.
"Finally, we actually have the victory we expected," Jones said. "It's tempered by the fact that it's only applying directly to Doe, and we're still going to have to go fight for anyone else in his situation."
According to the statement of charges, Haines was a 24-year-old Boonsboro Middle School teacher during the 1983-1984 school year, when the Washington County Board of Education investigated allegations of sexual misconduct. The claims were never reported to law enforcement until 2005, when the victim contacted Maryland State Police and said she had been raped when she was 13, the police report said. Three other former students also came forward during an investigation, accusing Haines of molesting them, the report said.
Haines accepted a plea agreement in 2006 that dropped a second-degree rape charge and other sex offense charges. He declined to comment through Forster.
He was sentenced to a 10-year prison term with all but 41/2 years suspended. He also received three years of probation. And the court ordered him to register as a child sexual offender.
In October 2006, Haines filed a motion disputing the registration order because his crime occurred well before 1995, when the Maryland registry was created. A judge ruled in favor of Haines. He was released from prison in 2008.
In 2009 legislators expanded the registry parameters, and Haines was again ordered to register as a child sex offender, this time for 10 years. He sued to keep his name off the list, but a circuit judge rejected his claim.
While his name remained on the registry, his case was appealed to Maryland's highest court.
A Circuit Court judge recently ordered the department to follow the appeals court ruling and remove Haines from the registry.
Binetti said the state chose to abide by the order rather than fight the contempt charge. But the state this month appealed the Circuit Court order to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, one rung below the high court.
David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office, said the state will resurrect the issue of federal jurisdiction. State officials contend the Maryland Court of Appeals justices didn't consider a federal law governing sex offenders.
The state attorney general's office maintains that Haines should not have been removed from the sex offender registry because the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act requires him to be on it "irrespective of whether he can be obligated to register under Maryland law," according to a previous motion state lawyers filed.
The federal law was created when the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act passed in 2006. It spells out "minimum standards" for sex offender registration and notification across the United States, according to the Department of Justice.
The law expanded the range of offenses that require registration, forced sex offenders to make periodic in-person appearances at law enforcement agencies and changed the required minimum duration of registration for sex offenders, according to the justice department.
The state attorney general's office argued that Congress wanted to create a "nationwide public safety system" to ensure all sex offenders register.
Binetti said even if state registration requirements don't apply to people convicted of sex crimes, the department must adhere to the federal law.
Forster has said she doesn't believe the federal law supersedes any state laws or rulings and that the federal act has provisions governing when state and federal registration laws conflict.
The state, Binetti said, will let the appeals process "play itself out."
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