What to Expect When Registering as a Sex Offender

A Conversation with Jan Olson, Seattle Criminal Defense Lawyer

Q: Clients convicted of sex offense crimes must have a lot of questions about the process of Sex Offender Registration.  What can they expect from the process in general?

When a person is convicted of certain sex offenses, they are required to register as a sex offender with law enforcement. The registration consists of going to the local police department where they reside. For example, if they live in Seattle, they would go to the central downtown Seattle Police Department. They would go to an office in that building and declare, “I’m convicted of a registration offense.” Then, the officer in charge will record conviction and identifying information: name, address, date of birth, contact information.

The registration will be reviewed by the police department to determine what classification level that person who’s required to register will be designated as.

There are three levels of sex offender registration in the State of Washington.

Level One is the least serious and Level Three is the most serious. The police officer who’s assigned to make that designation has a background of knowing how sex offense cases are handled. They get access to information from the courts and from therapists as to the seriousness of the individual’s criminal charge and their history before deciding.

Q: What are the differences in the levels of classification?

A Level One offender, the least severe, is basically only known by the local police department. The local police will disseminate Level One offender’s information as required or necessary to other jurisdictions.

The jurisdictions that are most important are schools which have the offender in attendance. That goes both for juvenile offenders and adult offenders in college. The day-to-day activity of someone who is a Level One is not affected greatly due to low-level notoriety and noninvasive notice to the community.

A Level Two offender will have notifications that go out to the community that could involve the general public being on notice. For instance, you might have someone have their photograph stapled to a telephone pole. That’s the classic example of Level Two public notices.

A Level Three offender is where the police often go door to door and say, “You have a registered Level Three sex offender living three houses down from you.” Being assigned as a Level Three sex offender will have the greatest impact on the offender who’s attempting to reenter public life.

Q: How is the sex offender registration classification level determined?

A person who registers as a sex offender won’t immediately be designated as a Level One, Two or Three. There will be a period of review and a determination of the appropriate level by the individual police department.

You will have some disparity in how somebody is categorized, and how long the process will take, simply by which police department the individual goes to.

In Seattle, they have a full-time officer who is devoted to making that classification. If you go to a smaller community, they do not have a full-time officer. They will take longer to get the determination done and they often may make a judgment call that another jurisdiction would not.

There is a highly subjective nature to the determination of the sex offender registration classification level.  

As an example, Communication with a Minor for Immoral Purposes (CMIP) is a crime in the State of Washington (which used to involve only talking to a minor in a notoriously dirty/naughty way involving sex but can now also involve physical activity). That is a gross misdemeanor, but it does require registration. Normally CMIP is a Level One classification. However, the police can review the offender’s entire history.  If they see, for example, that the offender has a prior similar conviction, they may classify that person as a Level Two. They have that discretion. 

Q: Will a sex offender’s personal information and criminal history be available to the general public?

For a Level One, the public is not provided that information. There’s a policy behind that, which is Level One offenders are the least likely to reoffendand therefore, their notoriety is not as necessary as somebody posing a bigger risk to the community. Information identifying Level One offenders may only be given to the Department of Corrections, the Department of Youth Services (if they’re a juvenile) or the Department of Social and Health Services. State agencies are entitled to the information, not the general public.

However, for Level Two and Level Three offenders, the public can have access to the personal information through the police department and through the Sex Offender Registry Board. Generally, the public can learn their full name, date of birth, the date of their conviction, what crime they were convicted of, and whether, in fact, they are still on active supervision by the Department of Corrections.

Q: Do all sex crimes require sex offender registration?

Most sex crimes do involve registration. Rape, child molestation and child pornography are the three classic areas. There are individual crimes within each of those areas and all of them require sex offender registration. Based upon the degree or the severity of those crimes, there will be a determination by the courts about how long the person would have to register.

There are a few sex offenses that do not require registration such as prostitution, luring, and assault in the fourth degree (when the assault incident includes a sexual motivation). Those are crimes that do not require sex offender registration, even if convicted.

Q: How long does a sex offender remain on the registry?

The length of registration is different and based upon the seriousness of the offense. The general rule is if it’s a Level A offense, the most serious, it’s lifetime registration. If it’s a Level B offense, it’s 15 years of registration and then the Court can release the registration requirement. For a Level C offense, it’s 10 years of registration and the court does not have to get involved, it simply stops after 10 years. However, the Court does not decide at which classification level the offender will need to register for that length of time.

For example, for a person convicted of child molestation in the first degree, that crime under our state’s criminal statutes is a Level A offense. The Level A offense triggers under the Sex Offender Registration Statute the length of time the person must register. In this case, a lifetime registration. But will the offender need to register as a Level One, Two or Three? That’s decided by an administrative review by the local police department. The type of crime gives an idea of how long the person must register, but the level of what notice must be given to the community is a police department determination.

Q: Can a sex offender’s classification level change based on where they live?

Yes, that can happen. There are communities who make it very clear that they’re a morally upright, high end community that simply don’t tolerate sex offenders. So, in those areas, there’s tremendous pressure on police departments to find that an offender is a Level Two or Three because then there’s more notice that goes out to the community (something the sex offender does not want and may alter his choice of residence). In opposition to that, in large communities like Seattle that have full-time officers who have the resources to really review these types of cases, may feel less pressure to appease the community and are more likely to make the determination based on the case file. There have been many clients who called me and said, “When I went to this community, I was a Level Two. But when I moved to Seattle, I became a Level One.”

Do you have further questions regarding sex offender registration? Consult with an attorney.

If you have a criminal matter and would like to consult with a lawyer, contact Jan Olson at Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC. You can reach Jan by calling (206) 682-0565 or by e-mail at jolson@elmlaw.com.