Life and occasional victory as a “sex offender” registrant

Originally published in the CT Mirrorreprinted here in full with the author’s permission.

By James Cornelio . . . I was born in Torrington in 1955, the son, one of four, of a successful small-town automobile dealer and a stay-at-home mom. After graduating from Cornell University in 1977, I moved to Manhattan, attended Fordham Law School and, upon graduation from Fordham, practiced real estate and private banking law in Manhattan for over 20 years. Upon my release from a New York prison in 2007, I moved back to Connecticut and, as the law required, registered as a sex offender.

Understanding the power of those two words, I have tried elsewhere to explore, as best I could, why and how those words have come to forever define who I am. Here, however, I’m going to explore the effect of those words not just on me but on the legal system which, trained as I was, I had come to respect.

On April 22, 2018, I was arresed in my home because of a warrant issued at the request of the sex offender registry unit of the Connecticut State Police (SORU) for failing to file an email address with them which, as a registered offender, Connecticut law also required. Notably, it was an email address which, though I hadn’t ‘filed’ with SORU, I had used multiple times over several years in communicating with them prior to their request for a warrant. So why did they nonetheless seek my arrest?

In part, because they could.

Thankfully, they no longer can, at least not for that crime.

On Sept. 14, 2023, a Federal District Court held in Cornelio v. CT, a case I initially brought pro se, that the Connecticut law requiring that registrants file their email addresses and all other “internet identifiers” with the police or risk being charged with a class “D” felony violates the First Amendment. Consequently, the court permanently enjoined the state from enforcing the law. Less thankfully, because I had not fashioned my case as a “class action” lawsuit, the court, notwithstanding our request to do so, refused to extend that First Amendment protection to any registrant in the state other than to me.

But given that the court itself acknowledged that “the reasons that the law is invalid as to Cornelio would appear to apply with equal force to all other sex offenders,” we fully expect that a class action lawsuit, to be filed as soon as resources allow, will extend the protection provided to me by my case to all other registrants in the state.

That law, it should be said, is duplicated in states across the country. Moreover, it is but one of many other laws which, of all those who have committed a crime and served their time, apply only to those of us who have committed a sex crime. In fact, it was SORU’s earlier enforcement of one of those other laws, and my reaction to that enforcement, which, most certainly, was the reason why SORU sought my arrest for my subsequent ‘email crime.’

Briefly, in July, 2015, I was arrested because I failed to confirm my home address within the 10-day statutory time period set forth in a Connecticut law requiring registrants to provide written confirmation thereof every three months or face a felony charge. Once the state prosecutor was convinced I would not ‘cop a plea’ to any charge because of my late mail, the case was dismissed. I then, in what was surely a first for them, brought my first pro se case by suing SORU in Federal Court for violating my Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

In my court papers, I pointed out that SORU, in seeking my arrest, had not only ignored both their own (reasonable) protocol on late confirmation letters and the relevant law’s direction that they refer late letters to local police but, more pointedly, they had ignored that the presumptive purpose of the law was to assure a registrant hadn’t moved. I hadn’t. And they had no reason because of a late letter or otherwise to believe that I had. And if, for some reason, they were concerned that I had moved, there were far simpler and more effective, and far less punishing, ways of determining that risk to the public than by seeking my arrest.

Well, I learned that, per the statutory language adopted by Connecticut lawmakers and interpreted by the state’s highest court, it doesn’t matter whether one has moved or not. Nor does it matter whether the police have a reasonable suspicion that a registrant has moved. Nor even whether the late return of a confirmation letter was unintentional or otherwise excusable. No, under that law as interpreted by that court, a registrant can be arrested and be held strictly liable for a Class D felony simply because their mail is late. Think about it. The elements of this felony are established by two postmarks.

Suffice it to say, with reasonableness rendered irrelevant, my Fourth Amendment case was dismissed. Not long thereafter, I was arrested for my email crime.

I write this not to bemoan my fate but to shine a light on the fact that laws which were meant to protect the public have, with little significant push-back, been weaponized by lawmakers, the courts and those tasked with enforcing those laws. Beyond my personal experience are these other examples: here, strict residency requirements wreak havoc and hardship: or here, even visiting registrants must beware; or here, Halloween horrors abound; and then there’s this; and this; and this; and this; and … more.

Given all that, let me suggest that the reasoning by the Supreme Court in its 2003 decision in Smith v. Doe was, at best, naïve if not willfully blind to what cruelty it might unleash. In that seminal case, the court ruled that an Alaska law establishing a public registry and requiring convicted sex offenders, who have already served their court-imposed sentences, to thereafter routinely re-register on that public registry was merely “regulatory” and not punitive in nature. In effect, the court’s decision meant that judges and juries — that is, those familiar with the particulars of the who, what, when and where of the crime — need not even be aware of, let alone weigh in on, whether the defendant before them may become subject to those “regulatory” reporting requirements. Instead, as I personally experienced by being required to register for life, a sweeping, harshly crude, paint-by-numbers formula for determining one’s “risk” to the public is unilaterally imposed by those who write the laws — and who answer only to the voters.

Not only voters but any empathetic human being understands, and would seek to allay, the pain and abiding distress of those who have been sexually victimized and the fear of others, especially parents, about their own potential victimization or that of their children. But an uniformed belief that so-called “stranger danger” is widely prevalent and that but for public registries the recidivism of convicted sex offenders would be out-of-control have served to further inflame sexual fears already ignited by a competitive media seeking clicks and ambitious politicians seeking power, both more-than-ready to exploit those fears.

The result is a legal system which has gone well beyond the deeply unfortunate, if somewhat less punitively oppressive, Alaska law at issue in the Doe case to one which now embodies the modern equivalent of banishment for a whole class of citizens.

someone outside of NARSOL

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2 Thoughts to “Life and occasional victory as a “sex offender” registrant”

  1. AvatarThe Criminalized Man

    James is right. Smith v Doe has got to go. We need more courageous citizens like him on our side.

  2. AvatarJames Logan

    Smith v. Doe was based solely on fabricated and non-existent “statistics”. At the time of the original filing of the case, there was no records being kept showing what percentage of persons convicted of sexual crimes recommitted those (or other) crimes after completion of their sentence. However, since the Doe case went to the United States Supreme Court, there have been records kept and the truth is, persons convicted of sex crimes are the Least Likely to reoffend after release from prison – whether on parole or discharge. Infact, 97% of all sex crimes are committed by persons who have never been convicted of a sex crime. Registries do not protect the public. They do nothing to prevent a person from committing a sex crime. Smith v. Doe was based on lies and those lies continue to ruin lives every day.

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