WASHINGTON — A Louisiana law required people convicted of sex crimes to use driver’s licenses on which the words “sex offender” would appear in big capital orange letters under their photographs.
That could make everyday encounters — with bank tellers, hotel clerks, supermarket cashiers, election officials, airport security officers and prospective employers — humiliating. Critics called the notation a modern-day scarlet letter. State officials said it kept the public safe from predators.
The Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the law last year, saying it violated the First Amendment. State officials have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, one that presents important questions about public policy and First Amendment doctrine.
Sex offenders are subject to countless restrictions under state and federal laws, notably by having to list their addresses on public registries available on the internet. In a petition seeking Supreme Court review, state officials said that was not enough and that the special IDs provided an extra measure of security.
“Under the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision, the public will lack an essential tool for identifying sex offenders in the community,” the state’s petition said. “Online registries are insufficient to protect the state’s interests because people can easily give a false name and deny their status. During storms and other emergencies, power outages and interrupted internet connections may make it impossible to check the online registry.”
The petition gave examples of why state ID cards should bear the notation, some more compelling than others. “People trick-or-treating on Halloween may need a quick way to verify that their children are safe from predators,” the brief said, though asking to see ID before accepting candy is not commonplace.
Early in the case, at a 2019 hearing before a trial judge, a lawyer for the state described a more plausible setting in which the notation could prove useful.
“If I’m deciding who I want to be my babysitter,” said the lawyer, Shae McPhee, “and I know that I don’t want a sex offender to babysit my children, I say, ‘OK, I’d like to see your ID before I allow you to babysit my children.’ And, ‘Oh, it says sex offender, I’m not going to hire you.’”
The case concerned Tazin Hill, who was released from prison in 2013 after serving a sentence for having sex with a 14-year-old girl when has was 32. Three years later, while visiting a sheriff’s office to update his address for the state’s sex offender registry, a police officer noticed that something was amiss with his state ID. The words “sex offender” had been removed.
Mr. Hill was charged with fraudulently altering the ID to hide his sex-offender status. He objected on First Amendment grounds, and the trial judge ruled in his favor, immediately, from the bench.
The Supreme Court: Upcoming Cases
- A Big Month. June is peak season for Supreme Court decisions. It is the final month of the court’s annual term, and the justices tend to save their biggest decisions for the term’s end.
- 4 Big Cases. The court is set to rule on the fate of Obamacare, as well as a case that could determine scores of laws addressing election rules in the coming years. It is also taking on a case involving religion and gay rights and one on whether students may be disciplined for what they say on social media (here’s an audio report on that subject; and here’s where public opinion stands on several of the big cases).
- What to Watch For. The approaches that Amy Coney Barrett, the newest justice, and Brett Kavanaugh, the second-newest, take. They will be crucial because the three liberal justices now need at least two of the six conservatives to form a majority. Before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberals needed only one conservative.
- Looking Ahead. Next year’s term, which will start in the fall, will have cases on abortion, guns and perhaps affirmative action, and could end up being the most significant term so far under Chief Justice John Roberts.
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