After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. constantly tries to find the correct balance between privacy and public safety. Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. John Doe has revealed the important implications of public safety towards privacy in the United States.
The terrorist acts of 9/11 have revealed serious inconsistencies between public safety and privacy in the legal system of the United States. Numerous laws, legal norms, and Supreme Court decisions have only increased the growing tension between the two notions of public safety and privacy. The natural state’s desire to protect its citizens from terrorist threats has evidently neglected the importance of stable balance between public safety and privacy. As a result, the state cannot effectively promote both legal values and has to sacrifice one legal notion for the sake of protecting the other.
Connecticut v. Doe: summary of the case
Among other things, Connecticut’s ‘Megan’s Law’ requires persons convicted of sexual offenses to register with the Department of Public Safety (DPS) upon their release into the community, and requires DPS to post a sex offender registry containing registrant’s names, addresses, photographs, and descriptions on an Internet website and to make the registry available to the public in certain state offices. (Supreme Court of the United States, 2002)
In the case of Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, the Supreme Court of the United States has actually overturned the orders of the lower district courts, which prescribed Connecticut Department of Public Safety to shut down its official website, which presented the visitors with the information about convicted sex offenders, and to prevent public access to printed information about sex offenders. The lower courts concluded that spreading information about sex offenders and making it public initially implicated the liberty interests of those who could become potential registrants of the discussed website (Supreme Court of the United States, 2002).
Supreme Court of the United States has completely disagreed with the previous decisions of the lower courts. John Doe was trying to defend his position by stating that he was not dangerous during the time when he was registered at the website. However, the Supreme Court has come to conclusion that regardless the danger sex offenders actually presented, they had to be registered.
Objectively, it does not matter whether the sex offender is dangerous or not. Connecticut’s “Megan’s Law” does not refer to any particular level of danger, according to which sex offenders should or should not be registered at Connecticut’s DPS website. It was sufficient for the U.S. Supreme Court to state that sex offenders were given an opportunity to contest their guilt during the sex offense court proceedings. Regardless the danger sex offenders represent, they must be registered at Connecticut DPS website, and to make their personal information publicly accessible.
Connecticut v. Doe: implications
The discussed case has generated acute public response. Beyond that, the case has carried profound implications for the social policies in the public safety area in the United States. To start with, “Connecticut’s Megan’s Law applies, with a few exceptions, to persons convicted after October 1, 1988 of criminal offenses against a minor, violent and nonviolent sexual offenses, and felonies committed for a sexual purpose” (Brooks, 1996).
When sex offenders are released and enter the community, they are obliged to register with the sex offenders’ informational registry developed by Connecticut Department of Public Safety. Certainly, this is an effective measure of providing the community with the objective information its potential dangerous members. Simultaneously, sex offenders are not deprived of traditional personal and privacy rights. As a result, Connecticut’s Megan’s Law risks breaking the discussed privacy rights of those who has already been convicted and released from jail.
With the desire to promote public safety, the U.S. has proved that such cannot exist in line with the privacy rights of those who can easily breach public safety again. Connecticut v. Doe has pushed the importance of public safety to the foreground, making it more important than privacy rights of sex offenders. The case has directly implied that social policies in the area of public safety require better focus on privacy rights. It is interesting to note, that in his justification of the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Scalia compared Connecticut’s Megan’s Law with the law which prohibited everyone under age of 16 to drive a motor vehicle: “that is why, […] a convicted sex offender has no more right to additional ‘process’ enabling him to establish that he is not dangerous than a 15-year-old has a right to ‘process’ enabling him to establish that he is a safe driver” (Supreme Court of the United States, 2002).
Having drawn this analogy, the Justice has actually left no hope for the privacy rights’ defenders to protect privacy against public safety. The case has proven that the U.S. public safety policies lack profound understanding of what constitutes substantial risk to public safety and what factors could justify the breach of privacy rights.
Public safety remains the preliminary concern within the contemporary American legal system. The U.S. Patriot Act has become the culmination of the U.S. fight for public stability, safety, and peace. In the light of constant terrorist threats privacy rights seem to lose their relevance and turn into secondary legal elements.
Although it is difficult to compare and equal terrorism to sex offense, sex offenders still create one of the major criminal dangers in the society, taking into account the extremely high level of recidivism among them (Inbau, 1999). There is no guarantee that a convicted and released sex offender would not commit another crime of sexual character. This is why the state makes it possible to justify the emphasis on public safety for the account of privacy rights.
In reality, the discussed case creates some generalizations about the state of public safety policies in the United States. On the one hand, the U.S. Patriot Act and legal enforcement agencies promote the importance and prevalence of public safety principles over the privacy rights. On the other hand, several organizations promote the importance of preliminary research before privacy rights are breached for the sake of public safety.
Development and implementation of social policies should be based on research whenever possible. It should be noted that to date, few research studies about community notification have been conducted. The research that has been completed has not been able to conclude that community notification reduces recidivism or enhances community safety. (Solove, 2003)
However, even when we lack scientific information which could justify community notification and privacy breach to protect public safety, the society has not yet invented more effective means of eliminating public safety threats. Sex offenders and terrorists equally represent serious threats to peace and stability in the society. This is why society invents numerous measures to protect itself from the safety threats and to release itself from the safety pressures.
It seems that the U.S. will hardly be able to produce any relevant balance between privacy and public safety. The Supreme Court of the United States constantly confirms the real state of legal affairs in the state: privacy means less when it comes to protecting the public safety of the American nation, although we forget that the American nation is made of separate privacy rights and issues which also require protection.
It is stated that “public safety can be enhanced and limited resources used more efficiently, when, the most aggressive notification practices should be reserved for those offenders who are at highest risk to reoffend and therefore require the most intensive interventions” (Brooks, 1996). However, we must be objective and realistic. When proponents of privacy rights express their desire to utilize sound evaluation procedures, and to protect privacy rights of those who are no longer dangerous to the society, they frequently forget that the American legal system lacks such evaluation models.
Public notification has been invented to facilitate the control of public safety and to introduce the timely corrective measures. From the viewpoint of the current legal situation in the United States, the American nation ultimately has to decide what should be more important: privacy rights or public safety. Connecticut v. Doe implies that the country which has gone through terrorist attacks similar to 9/11, cannot any longer neglect the importance of public safety, even when it initially breaches legal privacy principles.
In order to justify breaching of privacy rights, the state should develop a set of legal criteria, which will help determine whether a person or an action represents serious threat to public safety. In contemporary legal environment, the American society has not yet produced any other legal alternatives besides community notification. Specialists and human rights’ proponents may argue that the U.S. laws completely neglect the importance of personal privacy; but Connecticut v. Doe implies that when privacy threatens the whole society it can no longer be relevant.
From the legal viewpoint, Connecticut v. Doe has finally clarified the official state’s viewpoint on the importance of privacy rights vs. public safety. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision has underlined the importance of public safety and the prevalence of public safety principles over privacy rights. Legal professionals still fail to find a correct and justified balance between public safety and privacy rights.
This is why it would be more appropriate to develop legal criteria for the assessment of risks a person or an action may produce against the state’s public safety. Of course, community notification about sex offenders “can create vigilantism” (Solove, 2003). As a result, the state requires thorough re-consideration of all legal and law enforcement practices which are aimed at protecting public safety, and which risk breaking privacy rights.
Brooks, A. (1996). Megan’s Law: Constitutionality and policy. Criminal Justice Ethics, 15,
Inbau, F.E. (1999). Public safety v. individual civil liberties: the prosecutor’s stand. Journal
of Criminal Law and Criminology, 29, 129-134.
Solove, D.J. (2003). The virtues of knowing less: justifying privacy protections against
disclosure. Duke Law Journal, 53, 6-15.
Supreme Court of the United States. (2002). Connecticut Department of Public Safety et al v.
Doe, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated. Retrieved March 8, 2008 from