California sex offender registry: Is there an unfair standard?
Confronted with the evidence, former Parlier High School boys varsity basketball coach Francisco Peña told police he had sex with an underaged student “just one time.”
And when the detective asked if he could search his home in March 2016, Peña said yes and signed a consent form. “I need to own up to my mistake,” he said, according to a Parlier police report.
Peña, 38, has pleaded no contest in Fresno County Superior Court to a felony charge of unlawful sex with a minor. But before he was sentenced, his plea agreement hit a snag – a judge indicated that Peña would have to register as a sex offender for life for his one-time dalliance and end up on the Megan’s Law public website.
Peña withdrew his plea in April this year and now his case remains unresolved.
According to lawyers, police, and legal experts, Peña’s case is not unusual. Hundreds of criminal cases are in courtroom limbo statewide because defendants don’t want to be branded a sex offender for life. California is one of only four states that requires lifetime registration for most sex crime convictions. (The other states are Florida, South Carolina and Alabama.)
But Peña’s predicament and that of other sex offenders will soon change.
Our current registry system is broken.
Sen. Scott Wiener who co-authored SB 384
Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday signed the bipartisan bill that will give sex offenders the opportunity to get off the Megan’s Law website. The Tiered Sex Offender Bill will allow someone convicted of a misdemeanor or nonviolent sex crime to petition a court to be removed from the registry after 10 years. Someone convicted of a serious or violent sex offense would be able to petition the court after 20 years.
High-risk, sexually violent and repeat sex offenders would still be required to register for life, said Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who co-authored the bill with Joel Anderson, R-Alpine.
Registering as a sex offender is devastating not only to the defendant, but to their families and children, said Fresno attorney Roger Nuttall, who has represented several teachers who have been accused of unlawful sex with a minor. “It has a ripple effect on everyone,” he said.
Sex offenders under supervision have restrictions on where they can live, work and who they may have contact with. These conditions vary by each individual offender.
Wiener said the bill, known as SB 384, was supported by prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims rights groups and civil liberties organizations. He also said law enforcement officials wrote the reform legislation with support from rape crisis advocates and criminal justice reform groups to make the sex offender registry a more effective tool for monitoring high-risk offenders and solving sex crimes.
Right now, California's sex offender registry is so huge – more than 100,000 people or 1 in 400 Californians are on it – that the registry is basically useless to law enforcement, Wiener said. That’s because the registry contains a huge number of low-level offenders and offenders who were convicted decades ago and now pose little or no risk to communities.
“Our current registry system is broken,” he said, because it requires law enforcement to waste resources on monitoring low-level offenders. “This bill will give law enforcement more time to concentrate on the really serious offenders,” said Wiener, a Harvard law grad who once worked as a lawyer in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.
California is one of only four states that requires lifetime registration for most sex crime convictions.
Ali Bay, a deputy press secretary in the governor’s office, said: “SB 384 proposes thoughtful and balanced reforms that allow prosecutors and law enforcement to focus their resources on tracking sex offenders who pose a real risk to public safety, rather than burying officers in paperwork that has little public benefit.”
According to the Senate Appropriations Committee analysis of the bill, it is supported by the California Police Chiefs Association, California District Attorneys Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of California and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Wiener also noted the bipartisan support the bill has received, saying he is liberal, while Anderson is a conservative from San Diego County who staunchly supported President Donald Trump.
The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, however, said in an email: “Our office is not taking a position on this bill, and will have no comment.”
Equality California, a civil rights group for the LGBTQ community, also backed the bill. “Over the years, thousands of LGBTQ people have found themselves unfairly included on California’s sex offender registry, sometimes for something as innocent as a same-sex kiss,” executive director Rick Zbur said in a news release. “Many were victims of law enforcement policies that consciously targeted and entrapped gay men.”
Legal change needed
Zbur said laws have changed for the better, but California’s lifetime sex offender registry has not, putting many people on the registry who shouldn’t be. “It’s time to remove them and restore the registry’s usefulness as a tool for investigating those who pose a real danger to society,” he said.
No group has voiced opposition, the analysis says.
More than 100,000 people, or 1 in 400 Californians, are on the sex offender registry.
Sex offenders in California have been required to register with their local law enforcement agencies for more than 50 years. However, it was not until 1995 that that information was made available to the general public.
Under SB 384, juvenile sex offenders will be able to petition the court after five or 10 years, depending on the seriousness of their crime, Wiener said.
SB 384 will cost about $10 million over a three-year period to make major information technology changes to the existing databases, as well to the automated record review. But local law enforcement agencies will save tens of thousands of dollars each year because with fewer people on the sex offender registry, fewer monthly and annual reports need to be done, the analysis says.
“It is estimated that local law enforcement spends between 60-66 percent of their resources dedicated for sex offender supervision on monthly or annual registration paperwork because of the large number of registered sex offenders,” the analysis says. “If we remove low-risk offenders from the registry it will free up law enforcement officers to monitor high-risk offenders living in our communities.”
The bill will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, and apply to everyone currently on the registry and to those who have to register in the future, said Jeff Cretan, communications director for Wiener’s office.
Benefiting current cases
That’s should be good news for defendants such as Deandre JeanPierre, who once played the role of Fresno State mascot TimeOut. Last month, JeanPierre, 24, was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to register as a sex offender for life after being convicted of two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery against two students.
“It will ruin his life,” Fresno defense attorney Franz Criego told Judge John Vogt at JeanPierre’s sentencing. But Vogt said the law mandated a lifetime registration for JeanPierre’s crimes.
Fresno defense lawyer Margarita Martinez-Baly, who represents Francisco Peña and supports SB 384, also believes the current registration system is unfair because “it treats a drunk man who slaps a woman on the butt in a bar the same way as a violent pedophile who molests kids.”
She also said the current law is nonsensical because there are a few exceptions to mandatory registration.
For example, the crime of fondling a minor mandates lifetime registration, Martinez-Baly said. But if a defendant has unlawful sex with a minor, a judge has the discretion to determine if lifetime registration is appropriate, she said.
She pointed out the cases of former Clovis High School teacher Matthew Pena (no relation to Francisco Peña) and substitute teacher Dwayne Andrews who were each sentenced in August 2015 to three years of probation for having unlawful sex with an underaged student.
In announcing the punishment, Judge Jonathan Skiles rejected recommendations by the prosecution and the Probation Department to order Matthew Pena, then 33, and Andrews, 30, to register as sex offenders for life. In denying the requests, Skiles said the two defendants accepted responsibility for their actions early in the court proceedings and cited their lack of criminal records.
Court records say the student, who turned 17 at the time, had sexual relations with Andrews and Matthew Pena at different times. The girl told police she became romantically involved with Andrews, a former walk-on football coach and substitute teacher at Clovis High, around November 2013. She told police she referred to Andrews as “Daddy” and had sex with him from May 2014 to August 2014.
Matthew Pena taught photography at Clovis High and coached golf and baseball.
Matthew Pena’s encounters with the 17-year-old student happened from October to December 2014, court records say. The girl told police she was in love with Matthew Pena, had his name tattooed on her side and wanted to bear a child with him. She also told police she had sex with Matthew Pena when she lived temporarily with him, his pregnant wife and his young daughter.
Ruin his life
Martinez-Baly said Francisco Peña also took responsibility for his actions early and has no criminal record. She said Francisco Peña shouldn’t have to register as a sex offender because it would ruin his life and any chances of getting a decent job.
I need to own up to my mistake.
The Parlier police report gives this account:
Francisco Peña, who is known as Cisco, was employed by Youth Centers of America as a youth activities coordinator and worked part time coaching the Parlier High boys varsity basketball team. He was arrested in May 2016 and is free on bail.
The victim is listed as 16 years old in the police report, but a lawsuit filed by her family said she was 15. She told police she volunteered to work with Francisco Peña and he would help her with her homework. She said they exchanged messages via Facebook. At one point, he messaged the teen and asked her when she would turn 18. “She stated he asked this because he did not want to get in trouble for sending her messages through Facebook because he knew she was a minor,” the report says.
In May 2016, the victim said she sneaked of her house to meet with Francisco Peña, who was waiting outside in his car. They then drove to his house.
While sitting on a couch, they talked about her plans to go to college. “(She) stated she then leaned over and kissed him,” the report says. “She stated that Francisco tried to stop her by saying it was wrong, but she continued to kiss him.”
Francisco Peña pushed her away again, telling her it was wrong, the report says. The victim, however, told him: “It’s not like you’re putting a gun in my face.” The victim told Francisco Peña he would not get in trouble “because she wanted to have sex with him,” the report says.
That one single act, Martinez-Baly said, has ruined Francisco Peña’s life and his lifelong dream of coaching children. She said lifetime registration “would only make it worse for him.”