AUGUSTA (NEWS CENTER Maine) — Maine legislators seem to agree registered sex offenders should be banned from taking pictures of children and posting them online. But a bill to create that law could violate the Constitution.
In January, it was discovered that a registered sex offender in the Augusta area had been secretly taking pictures of girls in public places, then posting them on his social media pages. Families were outraged to discover the photos online, on sites police say are shared by other offenders.
"The comments under the pictures took me to a part of the world we don’t like to go. It was awful," said Lorena Laliberte, whose 12-year-old daughter Ella had dozens of pictures posted on the offender’s site. Laliberte said the photos were taken when she and Ella were shopping for books in an Augusta store. She said they had no idea the pictures had been taken until they were discovered online.
Laliberte and her stepdaughter Branda Chasse responded by starting a Facebook page named #timeforachange, which she says now has more than 500 members.
"So times have changed," she said. “Technology has changed. Nobody foresaw it being used this way. It's come to light and now its time to change the law to match technology."
Laliberte is backing a bill by Rep, Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, that would make it a Class D crime for a registered sex offender to take photos of minors in public without a parent’s permission. There would be some exceptions allowed.
But members of the state legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee on Monday questioned whether the proposed law would violate the constitutional right of the offenders, and the spokesman for the state’s Criminal Law Advisory Commission said it would. He told committee members the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a similar case that it is a matter of 1st Amendment rights, and that the proposed law, as currently written, would be unconstitutional.
However, he suggested a way to rewrite the bill to make a provision in existing harassment laws that could provide some of the same protection, but only after a written warning to the person taking photos. Committee members said they would look at that proposal and discuss their next steps.
Rep. Pouliot said he expected there would be questions raised about constitutionality, and that changes would be needed. However, he said some version of the law is needed.
"But what about the civil liberties of the children who don’t feel safe going into the public?" Pouliot asked. "I think it's important we stand up for those liberties as well."
The legislative committee has about six weeks until the end of the current session to rework the bill.