When the Virginia State Police began publishing the names and addresses of the state's violent sex offenders on the Internet Dec. 29, law enforcement officials thought a few extra citizens might log onto their normally peaceful Web site.
What they got was a stampede -- more than 260,000 visitors in the first week, enough to make the Web site all but inaccessible for several days.
Maryland authorities, who keep their list of sex offenders on paper, are pondering whether to put theirs online too. "We'll be watching what happens in Virginia with great interest," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which maintains the state's master list of sex offenders.
The Virginia Web site -- one of only 10 such lists nationwide -- has drawn more than Web surfers wondering whether a convicted child molester lives in their neighborhood. It has also drawn criticism from civil libertarians, who argue that broadcasting the names of sex offenders on the Internet is an invasion of privacy and an invitation to vigilantism.
The nationwide push to make the names of sex offenders widely accessible stems from a 1996 federal law -- popularly known as "Megan's Law" -- requiring states to keep track of convicted sex offenders and, in certain circumstances, notify communities when offenders move in. More than 40 states, including Maryland, have enacted versions of the law to spell out who should be put on the list and how communities should be notified.
The law is named for Megan Kanka, a Trenton, N.J., 7-year-old who was raped and strangled by her neighbor, a child molester who was later convicted and sentenced to death.
Until last week, Virginia residents could only obtain the state's list of more than 4,600 violent sex offenders by mail, after paying a $15 fee.
The state's new Web site (www.vsp.state.va.us) allows users to search the database of violent sex offenders by name, county, city or zip code. It provides each offender's name and address, along with a physical description, photograph and details of their crime. The Web site does not charge a fee.
Virginia State Police spent more than $200,000 to create the site, which was required after the state legislature passed a law last year making the sex offender registry more widely available.
"This is the age of information," said Capt. R. Lewis Vass, who oversees the Web site for the Virginia State Police. "A person has to be accountable for and responsible for their actions."
Vass said that of the hundreds of e-mail messages he's received, most have been from residents and community groups who like the idea of having an easy way to see whether a sex offender lives nearby.
Maryland officials say they're trying to decide whether a similar Web site here would be affordable and beneficial to the public. For now, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Web site (www.dpscs.state.md.us) spells out how to obtain the list of sex offenders but not who's on it.
"We're uncertain whether the citizens of this state would want us to go as far as the Virginia database," said Sipes.
In Maryland, the list of convicted sex offenders has 461 names and is available by sending a written request to county police departments or the Department of Public Safety. (Maryland officials are unsure why the state's list of sex offenders is so much smaller than Virginia's, but speculate the gap stems from differences in how the registries are compiled.)
Maryland officials say that putting a list of sex offenders online would likely require reworking the state's offender registration statute. A proposal was floated in the Maryland General Assembly several years ago to put Maryland's list on the Web, but it died in committee. This year, corrections officials are preparing legislation that would update Maryland's sex offender registration statute, but the draft bill does not address the Internet issue.
The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is expanding the amount of information available over the Internet in other criminal matters. Last week the department began posting schedules of forthcoming parole hearings on its Web site. The department is planning to broadcast hearings over the Web.
Some civil libertarians say they're concerned that making lists of sexual offenders available to anyone with a computer might do more harm than good.
"We would oppose anything that would spread the information this wide. There is potential for trouble," said Dwight Sullivan, a lawyer with the Maryland chapter of the America Civil Liberties Union. Elsewhere, the ACLU has filed lawsuits to block states from releasing the names of sex offenders on the Web.
One fear is that easy access to the list could inspire vigilantism -- a fear not entirely unfounded. The potential for computer hackers to alter names and addresses in an online database is another worry.
Virginia and other states with online registries have discovered that mistakes can creep in, such as listing sex offenders at the wrong address or with misspelled names. Critics argue that typos like these could lead to instances of mistaken identity with serious consequences. In one case, a Michigan couple who bought their house from a sex offender found their address was on the state's list.
Others worry that the widespread release of the information will make it tougher for convicted sex offenders who have served their sentences to turn their lives around.
"If everywhere the person turns, they're labeled as 'that child molester,' there's the fear that we're going to make these people permanent outcasts. Society has an interest in seeing people rehabilitated," said the ACLU's Sullivan.
Virginia law enforcement officials counter that information on sex offenders is already available to the public through court records.
Pub Date: 1/11/99