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Sex Offenders Fight Back Against 'Scarlet Letter' in Passports

A law that marks the passports of sex offenders is dangerous and unconstitutional, advocates and sex offenders argued Wednesday.

Amy Martyn

Amy Martyn

Photo by Jovo Jovanovic via Stocksy

In an attempt to curb child sex tourism overseas and sex trafficking, President Barack Obama signed into a law a bill that would brand sex offenders' passports with a unique stamp. The federal government must also send a letter to foreign countries notifying them that a sex offender is visiting. In countries like Iran, where sex offenders are killed, such a warning could be a death sentence.

The bill, known as International Megan's Law, went to effect this year, and now civil rights advocates and former sex offenders are suing to get it struck down. California attorney Janice Bellucci argued before a federal judge that the sex offender registry and other policies that target sex offenders "with one broad brush stroke" are harmful and counterproductive. One of the plaintiffs in her case, identified only as John Doe #7, is from Iran and wanted to visit his dying father at his bedside, but decided not to, fearing for his safety.

Bellucci, who is also the president of an organization called California Reform Sex Offender Laws, says International Megan's Law could be effective if it is re-worked to target those convicted of child sex trafficking or child sex exploitation, the crimes the bill was supposedly written to prevent. As it stands, however, all people convicted of sex offenses would have marked passports. That includes people who have been convicted of non-violent sex crimes like public masturbation.

"In history of this country, passports have never been marked, ever," says Josh Gravens, a man who was put on the registry at age 12 and now advocates for sex offender law reform. Gravens grew up in an isolated trailer park and was homeschooled by fundamentalist Christian parents. When he was 12, he touched his younger sister's vagina. She later told his mom, who called a Christian counseling center. Police were notified; as a result, Gravens was put on the registry, where he remains to this day, two decades later.

"I really feel like, if you open the gates on marking passports for any demographic, it sets us up for doing so [to other demographics]," Gravens says of International Megan's Law. Gravens now works as a Soros Justice Fellow and runs a criminal justice advocacy nonprofit. So far, he has collected 800 letters from people protesting the law, but says he has yet to receive a response rom the feds.

As Bellucci argued her case before US District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton on Wednesday, dozens of people representing sex offenders protested outside, according to a Courthouse News reporter on the scene.

Kathryn Wyer, representing the United States Justice Department, asked that Bellucci's lawsuit be dismissed on the grounds that the suit didn't allege any specific harm or injury.

"There is no stigma associated with something that is already public information... the plaintiffs do not have any right to have this information kept secret," she said. "They have been convicted under United States law, and they have no right to put a gag order on the United States from providing this information."