Anything you download on the Internet, could be potential child porn with a different name, then BAM, you are on the sex offender registry for life.
One morning about nine years ago, a young man was driving to work in St. Louis County. He was in his mid-20s and recently divorced. He had custody of his two small children. (That had not been easy, but he had an honorable discharge from the Marines, a good work record and had come across well in court.)
He was listening to Howard Stern, who was talking about a way to download things from the Internet. For free. That's interesting, thought the young man, not knowing that this information was going to be life-altering. That's the thing about life. Pivotal moments come and go without our realizing their significance.
Soon the young man was using this program at work to download music, videos and movies. He would then "burn" these files on discs to take home. "I was stupid," he told me.
Apparently, the company noticed unusual activity on his computer. A man from Human Resources came by one day and led the young man into a conference room. Two men were already at a table. They were police detectives. When the company had checked the young man's computer, the checkers had discovered child pornography.
"Sometimes files aren't what you think they are," the young man told me. "I had been downloading a lot of stuff. The only pornographic file I knowingly downloaded was something with Pamela Anderson. Child porn? I didn't intend to download any of that."
Who knows? He was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography, which was then a misdemeanor. The case was submitted to a judge, who found him guilty and gave him a suspended imposition of sentence, which meant that if he successfully completed his probation, he would have no record.
Actually, he was charged twice — in St. Charles County, where he lived, and in St. Louis County, where he worked. He received the same suspended imposition of sentence in both venues. That seemed like a decent outcome.
"I just wanted it to go away," he said.
He lost his job, but the economy wasn't so bad then, and he got another one. Plus, he remarried. Did he tell his new wife? "On the first date," he said. She had a couple of kids and she had custody of them. So now the young man was the co-head of a melded family of six.
For a while, it seemed that life had returned to normal. Then in August 2004, Missouri amended its laws to require people who had been convicted of possession of child pornography to register as sex offenders.
Who would argue against that? What legislator would want to look sympathetic with people involved in child pornography?
The young man registered as a sex offender, and his name went on the Missouri Sex Offender Registry.
Almost immediately, his son was dismissed from his baseball team. "The coach said he wasn't hustling, but I'm sure other parents didn't want me around," the young man said. Then he went to school to pick up his daughter. There was a scene.
"Apparently, people in the office had learned I was on the registry and somebody had started the rumor that I had lost custody of the kids and wasn't supposed to have contact with them."
That rumor was squashed, but still, the superintendent of the district told him he wasn't allowed on school property. Nor was he allowed to go to plays or sporting events. Also, other parents didn't want their children visiting his house. "Who can blame them?" asked the young man.
In June 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in a case that a man who had been convicted of a crime that did not require registration at the time of conviction could not later be required to register.
So the young man's name came off the registry. He got a new job. However, change was coming again, and change in these cases is always one way. The federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act required all offenders, regardless of when they were convicted, to register. Again, who is going to argue against that? In truth, there is never a debate.
Last month, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the federal law supersedes the state law. Earlier this month, the young man got a letter from the Highway Patrol. He would have to register as a sex offender.
In desperation, he wrote to the parole and probation department and inquired about clemency. He received a letter explaining that the governor can grant pardons only after a conviction, and because he received a suspended imposition of sentence and successfully completed his probation, he does not have a conviction.
Except, of course, as far as the Sex Offender Registry is concerned.
"I'm not a sex offender," he told me. "I'm guilty of being dumb and trying to get some free music and movies."
He figures he'll lose his job.
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