COLUMBIA — People convicted of sex crimes can’t get their names removed from the sex offender registry simply by leaving the Palmetto State, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled.
The justices’ Aug. 9 opinion involves an unnamed former Greenville County resident who sued in 2020 — five years after moving to Georgia — to get his name deleted from the South Carolina registry.
After completing his probation in Georgia, he came off that state’s registry. But his name, picture, offense, vehicle information and last known address continue to appear in South Carolina’s searchable online database.
In the federal lawsuit, “John Doe” and the American Civil Liberties Union alleged the State Law Enforcement Division policy unconstitutionally punishes people who no longer live in South Carolina.
Keeping him on SLED’s online registry needlessly limits his ability to work, travel and find housing, his attorneys argued.
A federal court asked South Carolina justices to weigh in on whether state law allows the public registry to include information on people who don’t live here.
The high court answered with a resounding “yes.”
“We conclude South Carolina has a legitimate and fundamental interest in promoting the public health, safety and welfare of its citizens, regardless of imaginary boundary lines between states,” Chief Justice Don Beatty wrote in the unanimous opinion.
“For example (and there are many), a sex offender who resides in and registers in South Carolina might move to Savannah, Georgia, or Charlotte, North Carolina,” he continued.
While the convicted offender may no longer be a South Carolina resident and no longer need to show up in person to register his whereabouts, “he or she could easily travel to and from South Carolina at convenient times for licit and illicit purposes,” the opinion continues.
Allowing sex offenders to get their names deleted by moving would ignore the reason for the law, Beatty wrote.
He noted state law provides several ways for sex offenders to get their names removed, which include getting their conviction overturned or securing a pardon. The Legislature created another option last year under orders from the state high court to fix what had otherwise been an unconstitutional lifetime placement.
The 2022 law ranked sex crimes and made those convicted of first-tier offenses, such as computer crimes, eligible for removal 15 years after completing their punishment.
John Doe is still years away from qualifying.
According to court filings, he was convicted in 2011 of an online sex crime in Colorado and sentenced to probation. At the time, he was a University of South Carolina student. He registered twice a year with his local sheriff as South Carolina law required until he moved to neighboring Georgia.
John Doe’s lawyers argued that since he’s no longer required to physically register in South Carolina, his identifying information should be deleted.
“We disagree,” Beatty wrote, adding the law refers only to the registration process.
Only the Legislature can amend the law to do what the lawsuit is seeking, he wrote.
In a statement to The Post and Courier, attorneys for the ACLU of South Carolina said they’re disappointed by the state’s answer to the U.S. District Court’s question.
But we “look forward to vindicating our client’s constitutional rights when the case returns to federal court,” they said.
More than 8,000 people on South Carolina’s public registry don’t live there, the ACLU told the federal court last year.
“Some of these individuals — like John Doe — are listed on our registry despite no longer being required to register as a sex offender anywhere in the world,” the ACLU said in a court filing. “Because these individuals are not actively registering with law enforcement, their registry information is necessarily stale, inaccurate, and irrelevant to the safety and welfare of South Carolinians. And although publication of out-of-state offenders provides no discernible benefit to law enforcement or the community, it inflicts profound damage on the lives and reputations of the out-of-state individuals that are listed.”
Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.