How much power is too much?
(Names have been changed to protect identities.)
By Sandy Rozek—We’ve heard it all our lives: If you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from law enforcement. But what if you are doing nothing wrong and law enforcement comports itself in such a way as to create fear?
When Ann heard the doorbell ring, and then ring again accompanied by pounding on the door, she looked out the window to see a sheriff’s car in her driveway. After the initial trepidation that even the most innocent of us feels when law enforcement shows up unexpected–is someone hurt, or worse? has something happened to my child?–she opened the door to a young officer with a federal marshal behind him. They wanted to know if her husband was at home, and a reply of no from Ann elicited a request to come in and go into the bedroom to verify that her husband did indeed live there.
Ann now knew, of course, what this was about. Her husband of 9 ½ years, Jeff, is on the sex offender registry in Ohio. He was convicted of a sexual offense thirty-three years ago. He served his punishment, including treatment and parole, and has been finished with his sentence for 11 ½ years. But he is not finished with registration; he will be on the Ohio Megan’s Law registry for the rest of his life.
She was confused though because Jeff had been verified as compliant a scant two months previously, and the two to three such checks done yearly are not normally so close together, and a marshal is not regularly part of the mix. They have lived in this location for five years with Jeff being in compliance the entire time.
“I stated that they could come back after my husband is home from work,” Ann said, ”and he typically leaves [work] at 3:30 p.m. After asking at least four times to come in my home and my continually telling them no, they remained astonished and shocked that I wouldn’t allow them. The last statement was, ‘So Ma’m, you’re not going to allow us into your home?’ And I replied, no I am not.”
In analyzing her feelings after the encounter, Ann described it as, “yet another instance of feeling so scrutinized,” and it being “so uncomfortable to feel like you live under a Gestapo regime today.”
Ann will garner little sympathy from those who feel that everyone on the registry should be tracked and monitored and punished for life. An opinion piece published March 31 in the Reporter articulates this feeling well: “The fundamental flaw I have with the process is that these persons have been deemed ‘safe enough’ to let out of prison, but they are still dangerous enough to warrant tracking and alerting neighbors to their presence….If we are still needing to track them, however, it sends the message they are not truly rehabilitated, and that their debt is not truly satisfied.” Those who subscribe to this will find no mercy for the inconvenience, discomfort, or even fear of a woman who knowingly married someone on the registry.
However, another aspect begs to be considered. The power given to law enforcement in dealing with citizens who are not on parole or probation but are on the registry, a non-punitive regulation, can easily result in abuse and violation of constitutional protections.
These officers knew that they could not enter Ann’s home without permission, yet they persisted to the point of intimidation. How many people, less staunch in their determination or less certain of their rights, would have been frightened enough to give in? How many are unsure whether or not they even have the right to refuse entrance to law enforcement? How many on the registry, and how many of their family members, have encountered negative experiences from officers, experiences that have taught them that their fate literally lies in the hands of those wearing uniforms and experiences that have rendered them reluctant to report abuse out of fear of retaliation?
I truly believe that the majority of law enforcement officers are doing their best to do a difficult job and to do it well and properly. I also believe that this is not true of all. I believe that there are some who, given power over another person, will use that power to release personal animosity and antipathy toward those they despise or to whom they feel superior, and registered sex offenders often fit this description quite well.
We need a better system of checks and balances, a system where a registered person or a family member can report situations where law enforcement has crossed the line, a system where the registrant feels safe in doing so and is safe in doing so.
No American citizen, once he has satisfied his debt to society, deserves to live with others having so much power over him that he is afraid to open his door and even more afraid if he doesn’t.