Lone Star Legal Aid Sues to Overturn Sex Offender Registration Law

Congress recently increased the budget of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) from $350 million to $390 million. However, legal services lawyers systematically engage in litigation that has little or nothing to do with their supposed mission of assisting the poor with their legitimate civil legal needs. For instance, it is questionable to say the least why legal aid lawyers waste taxpayer money to help convicted sex offenders.

In 2004, Lone Star Legal Aid, a LSC grantee, unsuccessfully sought to overturn Texas’ sex offender registration law, which it alleged was unconstitutional for “stigmatizing” convicted sex offenders.

Lone Star filed the suit on behalf of Meredith Trent Creekmore. While serving in the U.S. Army during the mid-1990s, Creekmore sexually abused his daughter when she was two to four years of age. He was caught, convicted in a general court martial, and sentenced to a six-year prison term. Creekmore was released from a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas on December 23, 1999 after serving a term of three years and ten months.

A month after release, the Jefferson County sheriff sent a formal letter to Creekmore informing him that he was required to register as a convicted sex offender. Creekmore had ignored his pre-release instructions that he immediately register upon release. After further stalling, Creekmore relented and registered under protest. It was then that he retained Lone Star Legal Aid to file a lawsuit against the Texas registration law in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Division of Texas.

Enacted in 1991, the Texas Sex Offender Registration Program (TSORP) requires persons convicted of sex offenses to register within seven days of moving to a jurisdiction. Persons convicted of a sexually violent offense, such as Creekmore, must register annually for life.

Among its objections, Lone Star argued that TSORP is cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, Lone Star claimed that the law’s provisions that Creekmore register in- person is punitive and excessive, going beyond what is necessary to protect the public. The court rejected this argument, noting that Texas may require in-person registration for any number of rational, non-punitive purposes, and in-person registration “serves the state’s goal of keeping its citizenry safe.”

Lone Star also argued that the law’s community notification provisions are excessive because the public stigma that attaches to people convicted of sex offenses “may make it more difficult for Creekmore to obtain employment or housing.” The court rejected this claim. Citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it held that information contained in the sex offender registry is public information anyway. And any “lasting and painful” impact on the offender was the result of his conviction, not his registration.

The court ultimately held that “TSORP, as amended, is not facially unconstitutional.” However, while the current statute provides due process, officials failed to give the process to Creekmore individually when he was required to register in January 2000. Creekmore was convicted under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Texas law at the time did not explicitly require individuals convicted of sex offenses under military law to register. During the course of Lone Star’s lawsuit, Texas amended the law to require that any person convicted as a sex offender under federal law or the Uniform Code of Military Justice must register in Texas if not otherwise required to register under TSORP.

While Creekmore is entitled to injunctive relief for the inadequate due process requirements that existed in January 2000, the court held that in no way does its decision prevent enforcement officials from subjecting Creekmore to registration under the amended law.