Haines was removed not because he was exonerated of his crime. His information was taken down because of a recent ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals declaring sex-offender registration unconstitutional punishment for those who committed crimes before the registry began in 1995.
Under the ruling, Haines may be the first of almost one in four registered sex offenders who Maryland could be forced to scrub from its online database. Maryland officials are now bracing for the possibility that a wave of lawsuits following his case could require the state to delist roughly 1,800 of its 8,000 registered sex offenders, state records, e-mails and interviews show. State officials say they’ll forcefully challenge each suit.
And the fallout could go further. The state’s second-highest court is now weighing whether the Haines case should be applied to a broader group, beginning with a Montgomery County man who pleaded guilty in 2001 to preying on a 12-year-old Pennsylvania girl over the Internet.
Even though Maryland’s registry existed then, the legislature did not decide until after he was convicted that his particular crime should merit listing on the Web site, which allows people to search by name or Zip code to find details on released sex offenders. Last month, the site was checked by nearly 12,000 people.
At least five similar cases brought by registered sex offenders are expected to reach Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals by September.
If the court continues to apply the same logic that benefited Haines, the series of cases would effectively unravel Maryland’s tightening of sex-offender rules in 2009 and 2010 — changes that made the state among the toughest on sex-offender registration and that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) hailed as one of his administration’s most important accomplishments on public safety.
“The attorney general and the governor’s office are going to have to decide how far they want to take this battle,” said David Wolinski, the outgoing assistant director of Maryland’s Criminal Justice Information System, the office that administers Maryland’s registry.
“There’s always a concern when you’ve removed data from a system that was previously there. One of these individuals — probably more than one of these individuals — will be a problem again,” said Wolinski, a retired Baltimore County police officer.
“That’s the scary part, you don’t know what they are capable of — and that’s really the whole point,” he said. “If we knew better, we’d have a whole different system than registration.”