Scarlet Letter Laws Are A Bad Idea

This is what I mean by scarlet letter laws:

A judge could order a sex offender to buy a distinctive license plate for his or her vehicle, under a bill proposed by state Rep. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill.

The law could affect motor vehicle owners convicted after Jan. 1 of a sex crime against a child 11 or younger.

“Child molestation is a sickness, and I don’t know that it’s curable. I just think we need to be aware as we can of who these individuals are,” said Keahey, 26, a lawyer serving his first term in the House of Representatives.

“I think it’ll reduce or maybe even prevent these child molesters from driving through neighborhoods where our children are out in the yard playing,” he said.

No, it won’t. These folks will still drive to all the same places they would have driven absent the tag. But the presence of the tag will have some seriously bad collateral consequences.

First, can you say “vigilantism?” How many of these cars are going to be vandalised? How many drivers will be beaten? What about the homes where the cars are parked? Indeed, Keahey sounds like he’s counting on fears of these kinds of attacks preventing the offenders from driving in certain areas. What, other than fear of vigilantes, would prevent the driver from going into specific areas?

Second, and before you conclude that the offender deserves whatever the vigilantes dish out:

Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he doubts Keahey’s bill will pass this year.

He said it wouldn’t be fair for the wife, child or other family member of a sex offender to have to drive a vehicle with a sex-offender license plate on it if the sex offender owned the family vehicle.

“If it’s a family car and there’s another driver of that vehicle, I think that unfairly points to them,” Black said.

The threat of harm extends to innocent drivers. And not just other drivers, but what if the sex offender uses the car to drop his kids off at school? How do you think little Billy is going to do in school with all the other kids making fun of him because his dad is a child rapist?

Third, and finally, how about the effect on the neighbors’ property values? Good luck trying to sell your home with a car parked in your neighbor’s driveway that is in essence a big ‘ol sign saying “child molester lives here!”

No thanks. The costs of this idea far outweigh whatever speculative benefit it might provide.

Explore posts in the same categories: Alabama Legislature

14 Comments on “Scarlet Letter Laws Are A Bad Idea”

  1. Dystopos Says:

    No comment on the “I STOLE FROM WAL-MART” sign-bearers?

  2. wheeler Says:

    i saw that story, and have heard about that kind of thing in other parts of the country.

    it doesn’t create the same problems as do the license plates, because 1) it’s confined to the actual crook, and 2) i don’t think marking someone as a shoplifter is going to cause vigilantism.

    i can’t decide whether i like it or not, though. it certainly seems to me that it’s better than jail – cheaper on the prosecuting city, a great deterrent, and lets the defendant remain employed, in contact with family, etc. still, it seems kind of weird, i guess.

  3. Del Says:

    It’s so American to think of the sex offender’s car tag as a logical extension of his person. It probably wouldn’t go over big if he suggested tattooing “CHILD MOLESTER” across their faces, but the car tag idea, thinks Mr. Keahey, amounts to the same thing.

    Has something changed, or is it still true that the vast majority of molested children are molested by a friend or family member and not some random boogeyman in a PT Cruiser with a “Helping Schools” tag?

  4. Kathy Says:

    I see another problem with this sort of criminal “branding”: unless there’s been some recent change that I’m not aware of, an older teenager convicted of having consensual sex with his/her younger girlfriend (or her/his younger boyfriend) carries the same “sex offender” designation as does a serial child molester.

  5. Del Says:

    They did say “against a child 11 or younger.” Keahey’s not inhuman. Or maybe he’s craftily considering the possibility that someday, a teenaged boy in his family just might get caught in that particular snare. 🙂

  6. Peter Says:

    I have another take on this issue. I has to do with road rage, which goes beyond simple vigilantism and can extend to the public at large.

    First let me say that I have no love of sex offenders, and I do believe that they are a special type of criminal that needs certain extra-Constitutional restrictions placed on them. However, I would like to say that sex offender-marked license plates on vehicles is a VERY BAD IDEA.

    Before I go on, I wish to state a disclaimer: I am taking care of a relative who was paralyzed in an incident involving a road rage assault. She was a pedestrian when a car ran another car off the road into her. The reason? The guy in the first car had flipped off the assaulter. Neither of them were hurt, but my aunt is living with the consequences in pain for the rest of her life.

    Without a doubt, when most people associate “sex offender” with “child rapist murderer”, or at LEAST that association comes with regard to their own children. Therefore, by putting a license plate on their car signifying them as such, you will CLEARLY create a VERY DANGEROUS situation.

    When most people see a car with a sex offender plate, their heart immediately races and their adrenaline rushes. Right off the bat, their driving control will be affected. Important to note: I said when they see a car with a plate, NOT if they see a sex offender!! You see, sex offenders may have families who also need to drive the car, and they have children whom are also going to be passengers in the car. Those people will be in JUST as much danger as the sex offender.

    I don’t think the legislature understands the concept of “road rage”. That is, simply, a situation where people whose adrenaline has been affected by bad drivers, where they react, usually subconsciously and without thinking, by responding to the bad driving event with one of their own. Perhaps speeding up to tailgate, or to pass and cut off, or any other form of retribution that can endanger not only the drivers and occupants of both vehicles, but of OTHER vehicles and pedestrians in the area.

    Put together the fact that most people’s blood will race when they see something that represents a very conscious threat, a sex offender, with the fact that road rage usually results from said responses to threat.

    Result: Many cars will be run off the road, and many people will be hurt or die. While most people would not complain and actually cheer the death of an offender in this manner, and perhaps exonerate the road rage driver in a court of law, what would happen if INNOCENT people were hurt or killed? (I’m using the term “innocent”, by the way, to differentiate the offender from non-offenders; technically, the offender is just as “innocent” as any other citizen, but I’m splitting hairs).

    I’ll be honest: if I see a car with a sex offender plate myself, I know my OWN adrenaline would race, and my own feelings would get defensive. If I, a rational person with a healthy interest in maintaining safety for my own children and family, can be brought to the edge by seeing a car, moving, on the road, what would happen if the driver’s disposition is ALREADY unstable, or perhaps he’s a former victim, and decides (or reacts) to run the car off the road?

    I’m not even talking about the obvious things, like vandalism, because many people wouldn’t care if this happened. I’m strictly talking about the actual safety of the other drivers and pedestrians themselves with regard to the law.

    I’ve been long winded here, but I hope I’ve given food for thought to other people. Do we truly want to risk the lives from PROVABLE cause (road rage)? I mean, what is the TRUE upside of having a license law for sex offenders that can justify those provable risks?

    Incidentally, I have several links regarding the scientific studies about road rage that I can refer people to. The bottom line is that this law is going to have unintended consequences beyond that of simple acts of vandalism (which WILL happen…count on it!).

  7. Kathy Says:

    Del, that’s what I get for not reading more carefully. 😦 I do wonder why eleven is the magic number.

  8. […] I was going to post on it… …but wheeler beat me to it. […]

  9. ALmod Says:

    Two actual cases I know of that would fall under this law:

    1. A guy goes to the home of a friend and uses the bathroom. While in there, 6-year-old daughter walks in because he forgot to lock the door. Daughter then reports to parents that she saw a “snake in Uncle Jim’s panties”. “Uncle Jim” goes to prison.

    2. A couple of foreign nationality decide to photograph their 2-year-old child breastfeeding– a perfectly normal custom in their native country. When the pictures are being developed, the person developing the pictures freaks out and notifies authorities. The parents are arrested, and the child is taken away and placed in foster care.

    Considering that, there is a lot of room for error in scarlet letter laws. Not to mention, we get to pay for the tags to be made.

  10. Truman Says:

    Why do we punish criminals anyway?

    If we lock them up, they might be exposed to a criminal element and come out worse than they were when they went in.

    If we make them pay a fine, we’re really only punishing their children who might starve or not be able to afford new sneakers, that’s certainly not fair.

    Maybe we should just sit down with them in a warm secluded dark room and in a soft voice explain to them that they shouldn’t rape murder and steal because it’s not nice. Yeah, that will work. Wait…..that could hurt their self esteem. Dammit.

    What about DETERRENCE!

    Oh right, I almost forgot. That’s just niave.

  11. Loretta Nall Says:

    I have sat in on many judiciary committee meetings and I tell you…I have a great deal of respect for Marcel Black. The man has sense and a sense of humor and he always has the right arguments for things like this bill. If you ever have time to watch him in action do it.

  12. wheeler Says:


    why do we let criminals live, anyway?

    at least one or two of them will probably committ more crimes, and none of them will ever be any worth to anyone.

    so let’s just make death mandatory for all crimes – felonies and misdemeanors.

    and no lawyers, either. if someone gets arrested, they must be guilty of something. so why waste time.

    yup. summary executions for all offenses. that’ll do it.

    see, i can play too.

  13. Truman Says:

    Right, because making someone purchase a pink tag for their automobile after they’ve been convicted by a jury of their peers of raping a child is the equivelant of a summary execution for a speeding ticket.

    I think it’s a lot closer to a slap on the wrist. And the screams of outrage over a relatively innocuous punishment, esp. in light of the offense, a vicious and brutal attack on a small child whom society has a special duty to protect, strike me as absurd.

  14. Del Says:

    I’m not particularly outraged—I just think it’s stupid, and typical of the grandstanding kind of legislation enacted at the state level (I believe Wisconsin is considering a similar law). I can’t imagine it’s going to protect very many kids—surely a really committed child molester will take a taxi, a city bus, hitchhike even, to accomplish his sordid goals. Meanwhile you’re spending tax dollars dealing with the tangential problems listed above: vandalism, harassment of other family members who may have to use the car, even road rage—or at least inattentive driving, as other drivers speed up to pass the Molestomobile then crane their necks backwards “to git a good look at the sumbitch.” And that is assuming, of course, that the owners of these tagged cars will all have been convicted justly.

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