We begin a new year, as always, with a wide array of new laws in Georgia. They target such topics as car tags, taxes paid by insurance companies on health care premiums and the use of traffic-light cameras.
One new law in particular is likely to touch off debate and possible court rulings in the months ahead: the push to crack down on Internet sexual predators.
In recent years, the Georgia General Assembly has made a concerted effort to keep sexual offenders away from potential victims, but not always effectively. In particular, a law passed two years ago severely limited where convicted sex offenders could live and work. The restrictions went too far, in fact, including such sites as school bus stops that are impermanent and difficult to enforce. As a result, court rulings kept the law from being put into force, and left law enforcement officials in limbo.
We've been critical of the legislature's attempt, mostly because their overreach kept a more sensible, applicable law from being enacted. We also have urged the legislature to distinguish between true predators who threaten young people and youthful offenders whose indiscretion as teens do not make them a threat, and should not be cast in the same category.
But this year, a new tough law aimed at potential molesters appears to be pointed in the right direction. This one is aimed at those who troll the Internet for victims.
Georgia and 14 other states have passed laws complying with guidelines in a 2006 federal law requiring authorities to track Internet addresses of sex offenders, but is just one of two to take the extra step by forcing its 16,000 offenders to turn in their passwords as well.
The new law faces criticism and possible legal challenges as well. Privacy advocates say requiring offenders to produce their passwords, in addition to screen names and e-mail addresses, goes too far.
A similar law in Utah already has been ruled in violation of privacy rights, though it applied only to one case. Expect Georgia's law to undergo the same scrutiny at some point.
"There's certainly a privacy concern," said Sara Totonchi of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. "This essentially will give law enforcement the ability to read e-mails between family members, between employers."
The bill's sponsor, State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, says the law's goal to protect children "outweighs a lot of the rights of these individuals."
This time, the state is right to take an aggressive posture. Common sense and news reports tell us that it's far more likely today for a true sexual predator to use the Internet to seek victims rather than hang around bus stops. Young people are in jeopardy on Internet social sites and chatrooms, where the creeps gather to lure their prey.
As Slaton points out, all efforts to limit the movements and access of sexual offenders violates their privacy to some degree. That's inevitable; anyone who has proven to be a threat must be kept in check somehow, a price offenders pay for their crimes even after any prison sentences are done. The alternative, in fact, would be to keep them locked up longer, which wouldn't be in their best interests and would be costlier to the state.
And turning over Web passwords is not quite the life-changing imposition of being forced to sell your house because of its proximity to a bus stop.
And in the case of active Internet prowlers, these aren't merely middle-aged folks who made a bad decision years ago and are trying to live right. They are actively pursuing young people for sexual trysts and fit the profile of true predators. These are the people who need to be monitored and kept in check.
It's hard to know how many of the state's registered sex offenders fit the profile of an actual child molester bent on further violations. But it's safe to say that those who do are hanging out in Facebook and Myspace looking for willing targets.
A tough law aimed at true predators is not an overreach but a serious attempt to limit their reach. The bus stop law was designed more to appear tough on offenders for political gain. This new law, if it holds up in court, might actually have an effect. And that should be the goal with any law aimed at such violators.
The law certainly must meet the standards of constitutional protection of privacy, and we trust the courts will interpret it correctly. If adjustments need to be made to keep the law within acceptable standards of search and seizure, so be it.
Whether it's this law or a new one, the legislature is right to pursue a more practical approach to protecting Georgia's children from the soulless pedophiles who seek to do them harm.