Stringer fallout halts sex offender registry reform

By: - April 10, 2019 10:01 am

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Legislation that would make more people eligible to have their names removed from Arizona’s sex offender registry may end up being an inadvertent casualty of the recent revelations of decades-old sex crime allegations that led David Stringer to resign from the Arizona House of Representatives.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, sponsored House Bill 2613, which he crafted with assistance from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. The bill would expand the list of crimes for which sex offenders could petition to be removed from the registry, while imposing new restrictions on people who seek removal.

With a narrow scope and support from tough-on-crime Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, HB2613 was working its way through the legislative process at a steady clip, despite an at times hostile response from criminal justice reform advocates who believe it does little to nothing to help people rid themselves of the lifetime obligation to register as sex offenders.

But the Stringer situation led Senate President Karen Fann to put the brakes on the bill. Fann, R-Prescott, ordered the bill removed from the April 1 agenda of the Senate Rules Committee, which she chairs. The bill was nowhere to be found on April 8 agenda, either.

Fann said it didn’t sit well with her to advance the bill so soon after details emerged about sex crimes charges that Stringer faced in 1983 in Maryland.

“I do know that there’s good reasons behind this bill. Unfortunately, it’s just being muddied with what happened over the last few weeks,” Fann told the Mirror.

Fann said she hasn’t decided yet what to do with HB2613. In another week, she said might feel differently about putting it up for a vote in the Rules Committee, though she’s “going to have to muster up some strength to do that.” Or she may bury it for the remainder of the 2019 legislative session.

“I don’t know. We’ll see where the members want to go with this. Personally I’m feeling uncomfortable with it. But we’ll see what my members want,” she said.

Bowers, a Mesa Republican, is hopeful that Fann will still hear the bill sometime this session. He emphasized that the bill would only affect people with low likelihood of committing new sex offenses.

“I think we can cool down a little bit. It’s still very much alive. We’ll see how it works out,” he said.

According to Baltimore police reports obtained by the House Ethics Committee, Stringer was charged with multiple sex crimes in 1983 after two boys, one of whom was mentally disabled, told police that they had sexual relations with Stringer after he approached them in a public park. Both were under 15 at the time. One of the boys said he went back to Stringer’s home for sex at least 10 times.

Stringer denies the allegations. He took a plea of probation before judgment, which he said does not require an admission of guilt, and a judge ordered five years of probation and treatment and a Baltimore clinic for sexual disorders. The state of Maryland expunged the case in 1990.

Arizona law mandates that people convicted of certain sex crimes register as sex offenders. The only people who are currently able to free themselves of that requirement are those who are convicted of consensual sexual contact with a minor who is at least 15 years old. An offender must have been under 22 years old at the time of the offense to be eligible for removal from the registry.

Under HB2613, people of convicted of several other sex crimes would be able to petition a judge to end their lifetime registration requirement, provided that the victim was at least 15 years old, or posing as at least 15. According to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, other crimes that currently require sex offender registration that would be affected by Bowers’ bill include:

Though it’s not a legal requirement, a judge can order sex offender registration for a number of other sex offenses, such as voyeurism, bestiality, unlawful disclosure of nude images, or unlawful sexual conduct by a peace officer, correctional officer or behavioral health professional. Judges can also order registration for any other crime, if he or she finds that it was committed with a sexual motivation. HB2613 would apply to those people, as well, the county attorney’s office said, provided they meet the bill’s other criteria.

The bill would also impose new requirements for people who want to be removed from the registry. Most notably, an offender would have to be at least 35 years old to be eligible. That means that for anyone who is currently eligible for removal, the process will actually become more difficult if HB2613 becomes law,.

While offenders who are currently eligible to petition a judge for removal must not have committed any additional felonies or sex crimes since registering, HB2613 specifies that there must not have been any subsequent offenses for at least 10 years. And the bill states that an offender must not have been convicted of more than one offense involving more than one victim.

It is unknown how many people would become eligible to have their names removed from the sex offender registry if HB2613 becomes law. Maricopa County Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Steele said the office didn’t conduct an assessment to determine how many people the bill would affect. Bowers testified in committee that he didn’t know how many people would be affected, “but I’m guessing it could be many.”

This isn’t the first time that a controversy surrounding Stringer has upended criminal justice reform legislation. After the 2018 election, Bowers created a House Recidivism and Sentencing Reform Committee and appointed Stringer, a criminal justice reform advocate, as the chairman. But the speaker abolished the committee after racist comments Stringer had made became public. Criminal justice reform bills instead went to the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman John Allen largely refused to hear them.

However, unlike the legislation that Allen killed, which observers considered unlikely to get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bowers’ sex offender registry bill appeared to be headed for passage.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Eddie Farnsworth, an opponent of most criminal justice reform bills, gave a hearing to HB2613 and voted for it, despite expressing some qualms about the legislation. The support of Montgomery, whose opinion on justice issues is hugely influential with many Republican lawmakers, as well as with Gov. Doug Ducey, seemed to help clear the way.

HB2613 faced criticism on both sides of the issue, but not enough opposition to stop it until it got to the Senate Rules Committee.

Several people testified in the Senate Judiciary Committee that HB2613 doesn’t go far enough. Vicky Campo, whose son was imprisoned and now must register because he had a sexual relationship with a high school girl while he was in college, said the bill won’t help her son.

“He paid his debt to society. But because of the sex offender registry, his punishment will never, ever be over. He cannot see his daughter. He cannot get … meaningful work. And the restriction are just suffocating,” Campo said.

Nonetheless, she urged the committee to pass HB2613 and expand it to include more people.

Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican, said in committee that he was a little uncomfortable with the bill, but was willing to advance it because there was little chance of recidivism among the offenders it would apply to. An attorney from Montgomery’s office testified that the bill was based on extensive research by sex crimes experts.

“If we’re going to err on the side of somebody, I would err on the side of the victim rather than on the side of the perpetrator,” Farnsworth said. “We’re trying to find a balance here.”

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”