May 18, 2014

Megan's Law sex offender list grows under new state rules

5-18-2014 Pennsylvania:

In 2011, 46-year-old Gary Leon Coleman sidled up to a man as he slept on a living room floor, put his arms around him and groped him.

The other man called Bangor police after three times awaking and telling Coleman to leave him alone. Coleman, who lived in the borough, was charged criminally, but everything about the way his case proceeded spoke to its routineness.

At his first appearance in Northampton County Court, Coleman pleaded guilty to a minor misdemeanor, using a court-appointed attorney he'd just met. His hearing took only a couple of minutes and he walked away without jail time, receiving a year of probation and an order to seek counseling.

Neither the judge, nor the prosecutor, nor Coleman's defense lawyer raised the possibility that he would one day be required to register as a sex offender, a transcript of the proceeding shows. That's not surprising since at the time, the crime Coleman admitted to — second-degree misdemeanor indecent assault — didn't invoke Megan's Law, which aims to protect the public from sex offenders by publishing their photos, addresses and other information on a website.

But that has changed due to a controversial new law pushed by Congress.

Ten months after Coleman's February 2012 guilty plea, a get-tough bill enacted in Harrisburg amid the threatened loss of federal crime-fighting funds took effect, greatly expanding the state's sex offender registry.

Under the new rules, Coleman must register for 15 years or face arrest for failing to do so. He is among scores of defendants across Pennsylvania who took plea deals calling for no registration, then were required to register anyway when the state changed its mind.

In Northampton County, one in seven offenders listed on the registry — 31 of 214 — was forced retroactively to register because of the new law, an April review by The Morning Call found. In Lehigh County, one in 15 was — 25 of 371.

That's despite initial court rulings finding that defendants who negotiated plea agreements to avoid Megan's Law are entitled to have their bargains honored, even though the new law says differently.

And that's despite vociferous criticism from defense attorneys who charge the retroactive requirement is an unconstitutional rewriting of the past.

Coleman's lawyer, Catherine Kollet, said her client's deal was premised on avoiding the stigma of being labeled a sex offender.

"He was a guy who sort of felt shunned already because of this," Kollet said, noting that as part of his probation, Coleman had to wear an ankle bracelet to work. Being forced to register, "You're sort of being put out in town square, waiting for people to judge you," she said.

Supporters of the law say the blame for that rests on only one person: the defendant. They say the new rules merely cover gaps that had allowed some offenders to escape the registry.

"Don't commit a sex crime if you don't want to be a sex offender," the mother ..Continued.. by Riley Yates and Kevin Amerman

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