Lawmakers were about to close two loopholes in the state’s Megan’s Law in November.
Then politics got involved.
About six months later, Gov. Tom Corbett signed the Castle Doctrine into lawanyway. But the loopholes in Megan’s Law, which protects people from convicted sex offenders, got stuck in the sausage-making process.
The stall has created a unified cry of anger among district attorneys who see no reason why legislation that was already approved once can’t be approved again.
Their pleas have had little effect on lawmakers, who say they hope to fix the loopholes by the end of the year, 13 months after the two bills first went to the governor’s desk.
One of the bills would fix the technicality that makes it impossible for prosecutors to go after sex offenders who were convicted out of state, move here and don’t register. That bill passed in the state House but is stuck in a Senate committee.
The other, which requires homeless Megan’s Law offenders to update authorities on where they are staying, also passed in the House but is stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The loopholes were discovered in 2009. They make Pennsylvania a haven for Megan’s Law offenders who fall into those categories because they can’t be charged if they are noncompliant.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association roughly estimates that well more than 100 cases have been dropped or not even pursued because of those loopholes.
That number is generous, because it’s based on a informal poll by PDAA of all 67 district attorneys in the state, and only 13 answered.
Of those, the Lancaster County district attorney says his count of failed cases is in the double-digits.
In Luzerne County, they estimate that two prosecutions a month don’t happen.
In Cumberland County, there have been at least five cases that couldn’t be pursued.
In Dauphin County, prosecutors say, on top of the dropped cases, they have several defendants who are trying to abuse the system.
“Just about every case we have, it seems that suddenly the person is homeless,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Sean McCormack. “We have that defense in a number of cases. A lot of people move around a lot and now claim that they don’t have a permanent address.”
Adam Walsh act
By the end of the year, Pennsylvania is supposed to pass the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, federal legislation that creates a national sex offender registry and equalizes sex crimes laws in all 50 states.
It’s similar to the national DUI law, which mandated that all states set the legal alcohol driving limit to 0.08.
If each state government doesn’t pass legislation in line with the Adam Walsh Act, it will lose federal money for victim rights services.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers are confident that the loopholes will be closed when they vote on the Adam Walsh bill in the fall.
“We already did it piecemeal, and it didn’t get it through,” Greenleaf said, referring to the November vote.
“We’ve already tried that, and we should do it all at one time now,” he said.
Seems reasonable, right?
Well, district attorneys across the state are furious because these loopholes have been open almost two years and — with no substantive opposition to the bills — it’s unfathomable to them why lawmakers haven’t acted more quickly.
“Every day that it’s not in effect, we are losing cases,” Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said. “There are sex offenders who should be registering who are not, who we cannot charge with their failure to register if they fall into one of the two loopholes.”
And since the Adam Walsh deadline has been pushed back before, there’s a lack of confidence among some that it will really even happen this fall.
“Who knows how long that’s going to take?” Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. said. “We’ve had deadlines for three years at least on Adam Walsh that have been missed. We definitely need to get it passed. It’s crazy to me that it hasn’t been passed. It’s ridiculous.”
Two of the most publicized cases have been in Freed’s county.
One was the case of Bryan Shaw Rouse. He was convicted of corruption of minors in Ohio and was supposed to register under Megan’s Law, but instead he moved to Mechanicsburg, where he was arrested in 2009 under suspicion of having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Police were able to put him in jail while they waited for physical evidence of the crime because he hadn’t registered his new address.
It was around the time the loopholes were exposed.
“We knew that we were going to have to dismiss the case and release him,” Freed said.
But they got lucky.
“We got physical evidence back tying him to the sexual assault of the 14-year-old, so we were able to file that charge,” he said.
Rouse, 34, pleaded guilty to statutory sexual assault last month, and when he’s paroled, he’ll be sent back to Ohio.
The other case happened last week, when Scott T. Shover, 53, was accused of eating raw ground and stew beef from the shelves of the Carlisle Walmart.
He’s listed as a noncompliant Megan’s Law offender — convicted of attempted rape of a child in 1992 — but police can’t jail him for it because he falls into the homeless loophole.
“It’s incredible to me,” said Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman. “This is such an easy fix, and we’re a haven for the worst offenders. It’s like, ‘Go to Pennsylvania.’¤”
To Stedman, it defeats the whole purpose of Megan’s Law.
“By the end of the year?” he said. “That’s ridiculous. These things are not hard to fix. You’re not redrafting the constitution here.”
So, what happened?
If there’s a clear answer, no one is giving it.
Greenleaf, stressing that one bill already left his committee and is in the Appropriations Committee, says he sees no reason to try to pass each bill separately when they anticipate a fall vote on the Adam Walsh bill.
Sen. Jake Corman is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and his office said he’s following Greenleaf’s direction.
Convincing them to do otherwise has been a frustrating task for Greg Rowe, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association legislative liaison.
“The general feedback has always been positive,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s not a question of policy. There is no controversy over the merits. Something else is going on. This is common-sense, straightforward, good public policy: It protects our kids, adults, [and] it protects people from a group of sex offenders.”
Greenleaf says a rush to pass the budget might have played a role in the delay.
However, the Castle Doctrine got through. So did a proposal to ban synthetic drugs.
“The primary thing we have heard is, ‘We’re going to do it, and it’s going to be included in the Adam Walsh legislation,’ ” Rowe said.
So that leaves district attorneys across the state hoping that lawmakers — this time — will keep their word.
“There’s politics, and you and I both know that’s reality. But when it comes to legislation about protecting kids from dangerous sex predators, those are the kind of times you want good policy to win out over everything else. Thus far, good public policy has not won.”