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Court ruling seen as no danger to Megan's Law

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania officials were trying to make sense Tuesday of a state Supreme Court ruling that struck down key pieces of the state's Megan's Law.

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania officials were trying to make sense Tuesday of a state Supreme Court ruling that struck down key pieces of the state's Megan's Law.

On its face, the high court's decision, released late Monday afternoon, appeared ominous for landmark legislation passed in 2004 that established stricter registering and reporting guidelines for sex offenders.

But attorneys for the legislature, as well as law enforcement officials, said Megan's Law will remain in effect even in the face of the court's decision. They point to Megan's Law legislation passed in 2011, and signed by Gov. Corbett, that they said essentially replaced the 2004 law that the court struck down.

"When you read that the initial Megan's Law was found unconstitutional, it can cause a moment of consternation in any prosecutor," said David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. "But going forward, I think it will have very little impact."

In their 5-1 decision, the justices found that the 2004 Megan's Law, which among other things expanded the online database listing offenders, violated the "single subject" rule. That requires that legislation stick to one subject, which the court said was not the case with the 2004 law, known as Act 152.

The 2004 legislation initially dealt with real estate matters, the court wrote. The measure was amended to contain other issues, including asbestos-related health claims and the changes to Megan's Law. It was not immediately clear why the bill was handled that way. But a handful of civil-liberties groups at the time predicted the bill's constitutionality would be vulnerable to legal challenges, in part because it contained multiple and seemingly unrelated topics.

And indeed it was challenged, by a Pennsylvania man convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 7 and 10.

In their ruling Monday, the justices found that the 2004 law "clearly, palpably, and plainly" violated the state constitution's single-subject rule. The ruling was written by Justice Debra McCloskey Todd; Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote a dissenting opinion. The court placed a 90-day stay on its decision to allow the legislature to deal with the potential impact.

But legislative officials said Tuesday they believe the impact of court's decision is mitigated by a Megan's Law measure approved in late 2011. That law essentially updated Megan's Law to bring it in line with federal requirements. Among other things, it closed a loophole by requiring homeless and transient sexual offenders to register with authorities. It also made more offender information available on the centralized database, including DNA samples, palm prints and fingerprints, passports, and expanded vehicle information.

"We were fully aware of this pending case when updating Megan's Law," said Rep. Thomas Caltagirone of Berks County, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "Working together, we made certain to draft Pennsylvania's new Megan's Law in a way to make sure that the public's safety was always ensured, no matter what."

Freed did say Tuesday that the high court's decision could have an impact on cases involving people convicted between 2004 and 2011 for failure to register under Megan's Law. But, he said, he believed the court's 90-day stay provided enough of a window to address it.