In 2010, Georgia was forced to make changes to its notoriously harsh sex offender laws after a number of lawsuits by civil rights groups successfully challenged the laws’ constitutionality. Certain limitations on where convicted sex offenders may live and application of new sex offender laws to those previously convicted were among the provisions that were overturned.
One of the most important changes now provides certain convicted sex offenders with the possibility of having their names removed from the Georgia Sex Offender Registry, an enticing prospect for those convicted sex offenders who pose little risk to the community but cannot move on with their lives.
The new laws permit removal from the sex offender registry for those who are seriously ill or injured, were sentenced for felonies that are now misdemeanors, or who committed false imprisonment or kidnapping of a child but did not commit a sexual offense, as long as all imprisonment, parole, and periods of supervision have been completed.
These changes will apply to relatively few, but ensure that those who have not committed sexual crimes or who are likely incapable of committing further crimes will not be burdened with onerous restrictions that simply do not make sense.
The change most likely to affect a large number of convicted sex offenders in Georgia is the provision that low-level offenders may be removed from the registry if certain conditions are met. If the offender has completed all required incarceration, parole, probation, and supervision and the individual has received a Level I (low) risk assessment classification, he or she may petition the state to be removed from the registry and to have restrictions on employment and residence lifted.
Offenders with higher risk assessment classifications may also submit petitions for removal but must wait until ten years have elapsed from the completion of all required incarceration, parole, probation, and supervision.
A petition for release must be filed in the superior court of the jurisdiction where the individual was convicted and copies must be served on the district attorney and sheriff of that jurisdiction and on the sheriff of the jurisdiction where the individual resides. Upon request a hearing will be scheduled. In making its determination, the court will consider all appropriate evidence introduced by the petitioner, the district attorney or sheriff, or others. If the judge is convinced by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., more likely than not) that the individual is unlikely to commit future sexual offenses, the court may grant the petition.
Our firm has successfully represented numerous Georgians accused of sex crimes. Page Pate was interviewed by the Augusta Chronicle for a recent article on the petition of a local businessman seeking to be removed from the registry. As he points out, the law is still new and there is little precedent to guide judges considering the petitions.
Though a number of factors must be considered, the decision ultimately lies with the judges, who may be reluctant to remove petitioners from the registry because it is politically unpopular.
Our firm works hard to ensure that our clients have the best chance of being removed from the registry. This means presenting our client’s case in the best light possible at every stage in the removal process.
As noted above, many clients seeking removal must first be classified as a Level I by the Sex Offender Registration and Review Board in Atlanta. Unfortunately, counsel is not able to argue on behalf of a client when the Board meets to decide on an offender’s classification. Counsel can, however, submit documentation to the Board advocating that his client should be classified as a Level I. The most compelling documentation is a letter from a respected psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed therapist stating that the offender has successfully completed sex offender treatment. In lieu of such documentation, counsel may also submit psychosexual evaluations, character letters and affidavits, and other similar documentation.
At the actual removal hearing, we find it important to introduce as much favorable evidence as possible. Most judges have not handled a large number of removal petitions, if any, and therefore it is hard to know what piece of evidence a judge may find to be important. As a general rule, the most compelling evidence at the removal hearing is live testimony from a respected metal heath care provider who can testify that the offender has undergone extensive sex offender treatment and that the offender is not likely to reoffend. Such an expert will explain in detail the type and length of treatment and the ultimate findings.
An attorney should also subpoena the sheriff’s deputy in charge of making sure that the offender has been in compliance with all sex offender registration conditions. Testimony showing that the offender has had no registry violations over the course of many years can often alleviate any anxiety about whether the offender is going to reoffend. In some cases, it may also be prudent to call the offender’s probation officer to testify about the offender’s compliance with conditions of probation and any thoughts that the probation officer has regarding the removal of the offender.
Counsel may also call family members, employers, and individuals in the community to testify about an offender’s character. Character witnesses who are well respected in the community, such as police officers, teachers, and clergymen, typically have the biggest impact. These witnesses can help demonstrate that the offender has made great strides to better himself, that he is a productive member of society, and, if possible, that he is in a committed, long-term relationship. Other factors that may be important to the court include the amount of time that has elapsed since the sexual offense, the length of the sentence, criminal history, employment and educational background, and the feelings of the victim and the victim’s family.
It is important to note that the District Attorney’s Office is allowed to present any evidence in support of its position that the offender should not be removed. Ultimately, the judge is allowed to consider all of the facts and circumstances before deciding whether to remove an offender from the registry. This underscores the need for clients to be open and honest with their attorneys about their lives – both the good and the bad. Only by having all of the information prior to the removal hearing can an attorney maximize the odds of success in the courtroom.
If you believe you may be eligible to be removed from Georgia’s sex offender registry, it is helpful if you have an attorney with experience in sex offender registry removal. Petitions for removal may only be filed every two years, so getting it right the first time is essential.